Pirates general manager Neal Huntington was on The Fan morning show on Tuesday, discussing Monday night’s draft signing deadline. He talked about Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie, a few 2009 draftees and some issues involving the major league team. Early in the interview, Huntington made the following comment. Apparently, The Fan reported the Pirates’ total draft expenditure as being $10 million a few moments beforehand.
And actually, I heard the lead-in. We spent almost $12 million this year, and I say that because Bob Nutting takes a beating in this town for being cheap. I don’t know if $30 million will be the top spent in the industry…but we’ve spent at or near the top over the last three years in the draft.
To me, this seems like a pretty modest statement coming from a guy who just completed a very nice evening of work as the Pirates general manager. Also, saying that Bob Nutting takes a beating in Pittsburgh is a gigantic understatement. The Pirates’ owner is constantly bashed in the media, and I understand that I will be hammered mercilessly for this next statement…but the majority of the criticism is completely baseless. The only reasonable arguments one can make that support the idea of Nutting being some sort of evil villain are that the major league payroll is very low and the major league team is very bad. These are also two common characteristics of most rebuilding organizations, a label that has clearly applied to the Pirates over the past two-plus years.
Anyway, Huntington’s comment touched a nerve over at Mondesi’s House. Mondesi’s House is a solid Pittsburgh sports blog, probably rivaling The Pensblog as the most popular in the city. But I really think they miss the mark in this post, taking an insignificant comment from Huntington and using it to make the same, tired claim that Bob Nutting is evil.
A quick look at the 2010 MLB payrolls shows that the Pirates rank 30th/dead last at $34.9 million, roughly $37 million less than the next-closest team in their division, the Cincinnati Reds ($72.3 million).
In fact, the other five teams in their division are spending an average of $97.1 million in payroll this year, going upwards from Cincy to Milwaukee ($81.1), Houston ($92.3), St. Louis ($93.4) and Chicago ($146.8). So spare me if Bob Nutting’s feelings were hurt for being called cheap, even though his team has the lowest payroll in baseball and is spending at a rate of 35% of the divisional average. What are we supposed to call him? George Steinbrenner?
I mentioned earlier that a rebuilding team is naturally going to have a low payroll, because any player who has accrued less than three years at the major league level earns near the league minimum. This is true for every team, whether it’s the Pirates, the Yankees or the Montreal Expos. Simply put, young players are very inexpensive. So if the Pirates are rebuilding correctly, the payroll should be very low right now and will naturally rise as the young core accrues service time. A quick look at the roster confirms this. Right now, the Pirates’ three best hitters are between the ages of 23 and 24. Another starter is 22-years-old and currently boasting a league average bat. Two other everyday position players have less than three years of service time. Huntington recently traded a veteran closer for a 25-year-old starting pitcher who has been dominant in his first three starts. The starting rotation of the near future is mostly in Double-A right now, gearing up for the Eastern League playoffs after winning the Carolina League championship last season. This is what a rebuilding organization looks like.
In addition, like most payroll complaints, this one is vague and devoid of a specific alternative. The assumption that a simple increase in payroll would magically improve the team in either the short-term or the long-term is flawed. High-priced players are not always better than inexpensive ones. For example, the top free agent third baseman last offseason was Chone Figgins. He is currently 32-years-old, playing second base for Seattle, sporting a .299 wOBA, and due $28 million through 2013. Would you rather have Figgins playing over Pedro Alvarez (23-years-old, .345 wOBA) or Neil Walker (24-years-old, .345 wOBA)? Is Mike Cameron (37-years-old, .321 wOBA) a better option than Andrew McCutchen (23-years-old, .350 wOBA) in center? Did you know that three of the five most expensive starting pitchers signed as free agents last offseason probably wouldn’t crack the Pirates’ pathetic rotation right now (Ben Sheets, Randy Wolf, Rich Harden)?
Just look at the NL Central teams mentioned above, for example. The Reds are paying a replacement level closer $12 million this season. The Brewers have more than $22 million tied up in Wolf, Trevor Hoffman and Doug Davis, three pretty awful pitchers. Houston is paying Carlos Lee $18.5 million to hit like Ronny Cedeno, while giving $4.5 million to the useless Pedro Feliz as some form of charity. I don’t even know how much they are paying Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman to play for other teams. Are these supposed to be positive signs about these respective organizations?
Mondesi’s House also had this to say about the draft:
Don’t get me wrong, Huntington deserves some kudos for getting these deals done, but really, he’s just doing his job. You’re supposed to take the best player in the draft. You’re supposed to then sign that player.
Sure, teams are supposed to acquire impact players through the draft, but Huntington is the one that actually did it. Twenty-nine other general managers passed on Stetson Allie, some multiple times, because he demanded a large bonus. Despite already drafting the player who would ultimately require the largest bonus overall, Huntington was the one who jumped on the opportunity to add a second top prospect. Then he spent the money to get both players signed. That made the Pirates one of the big winners of the signing deadline.
I understand that Pittsburgh is sick of watching the Pirates lose. It has been nearly two decades since the team has been relevant, and the days of giving management the benefit of the doubt have justifiably drifted away. But the knee-jerk, frenzied bashing of the most insignificant matters is out of control this season, and it’s honestly becoming a bit too much to take.