Major League Baseball’s biggest hurdle in achieving parity is the same as any other sport —or frankly, any other business— in our world. Money, money, money.
Don’t be fooled, fans. It’s not about winning, it’s about the bottom line. Then again, 100 percent of our in-house Minor League Ball readers are smart enough to know that.
There are exceptions to the cause. The NBA’s Golden State Warriors are splurging in luxury tax penalties to field a superteam. They’ve won two championships and counting.
The Dallas Mavericks did it for years before going the opposite direction. They won a championship.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are trying to make up for past cost-cutting efforts by paying a hefty bill. They...won a big game yesterday!
The NFL, meanwhile, uses a salary cap as effectively as any of the major three sports and has, by far, the most even playing field sans the always great New England Patriots or always hurting Cleveland Browns.
Baseball? It’s all about market and ownership. Teams like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers never have any issues coughing up the big bucks. But teams like the Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay Rays or the recent World Series winning Kansas City Royals simply can’t afford to pay more than a few select players a big contract.
Look at the Royals, who gutted their farm system to rent players like James Shields, Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist in 2014 and 2015. They got their championship but were unable to keep the latter two beyond a few months.
This offseason has seen two major victims to MLB’s biggest problem. The Miami Marlins, for the third time in 15 years, are cutting the financial fat off their roster.
In the past weeks, the Pittsburgh Pirates decided to do the same.
It’s a shame, really, because the Pirates have one of baseball’s most loyal fan bases and a beautiful ballpark. It’s not a terrible market, but it’s lower on the totem pole then its overall town product would have you think. (How about the Rogues, baby?!)
The Pirates are definitely the distant child between the city’s sports leviathans, outmanned by the football Steelers and the National Hockey League’s Penguins.
But the market isn’t what dooms the Buccos. It’s owner Robert “Bob” Nutting.
General Manager Neil Huntington is regarded as one of the brighter GM minds in the league. But at the end of the day, it’s not his call about what happens with the franchise’s assets. He’s not paying for them. He’s getting paid to answer to the man who does.
Since the turn of the century, the Pirates have only finished in the top half of the NL Central four times. In consecutive seasons, too.
They finished second in a decorated 2013 —Andrew McCutchen won MVP, Clint Hurdle Manager of the Year and Francisco Liriano Comeback Player of the Year— before falling in five games to the rival St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS.
2014 and 2015 resulted in Wild Card game fatalities. Despite 98 wins in 2015, the Cardinals won 100 and the Pirates fell to their fellow rival (and eventual champion) Chicago Cubs in the Wild Card game. No team has suffered the burden of the one-and-done Wild Card game more than the Pirates.
Mediocre 2016 and 2017 seasons prompted Nutting to begin a rebuild in 2018. If only it had been a year prior, because the trade market was much, much, much better.
The Washington Nationals reportedly offered Gio Gonzalez and top pitching prospect Lucas Giolito for McCutchen last winter, only to be declined and send Giolito and two other prospects to the Chicago White Sox for Adam Eaton instead.
Alas, in 2018, McCutchen fetched post-hype pitcher Kyle Crick and young outfielder Bryan Reynolds from the San Francisco Giants. There’s obviously potential in both and they were well regarded in the Giants farm system. Grain of salt, however, as that was/is one of baseball’s weakest farm systems. Especially after the trade for Evan Longoria cost them Christian Arroyo.
The McCutchen deal was the straw the broke the camel’s back. It proceeded the Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros blockbuster, which netted Pittsburgh pitcher Joe Musgrove, pitching prospect Michael Feliz, infielder Colin Moran and outfield prospect Jason Martin.
Again, this is a solid haul. But the trade market —the whole market, really— is bone dry at the moment and the Pirates are selling the faces of their franchise in this very moment.
The development of the six players received for McCutchen and Cole are crucial to the future of the franchise. The Pirates do have other players on the rise in the system —pitchers Tyler Glasnow and Mitch Keller, outfielder Austin Meadows, infielders Kevin Newman, Cole Tuckerand Ke’Bryan Hayes— and there’s a big toll on these kids now to become the next wave of star big leaguers in Pittsburgh.
They will be aided by established young big leaguers like Gregory Polanco and Josh Bell, but veteran Josh Harrison wants out. His trade request might be the most polite in sports history. You almost have to grant it!
It’s possible, obviously, that more than a handful of this crop develop into the players they can be. But then what? What happens when they rightfully command a big pay raise? It’s a miserable sports circle that gives ownership all the power. They’re the owners, after all.
The net return for their two best players has to sting. A fan has even started a change.org petition, begging the sweet baseball heavens for Nutting to sell the team. As of this writing on Sunday morning, over 54,000 people have signed.
It’s easy to go after a man named Bob, but Pirates fans are truly pissed. They’re sad. They’re right.
The competitive playing field in baseball will always be dictated by owner’s bleeding their market potential for every dollar they can. It’s a business, after all. It’s just not very fun or fair.