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First Pitch: The Future of Pirates Prospects, 2016 Version

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My first year running this site, I made $434.33. Four hundred and thirty-four dollars and thirty-three cents.

I wrote almost every single day. I searched for all of the information that I could find on new draft picks, tried to provide information on the Pirates that was resourceful and that no one else had in an easy to find manner, and had live coverage of the only minor league team with prospects in the system — the Lynchburg Hillcats. That’s right. Seven years ago, well before it was common and groundbreaking for an independent site to have live coverage of events, I was doing nightly reports of the Hillcats.

I spent $284.28 that year, at least in terms of what could be tax-deductible. That included site fees, hosting, tickets to games (I wasn’t credentialed until the end of the season, so I had to pay my way in to games for my live reports). I probably spent a fortune in gas, driving about 2,900 miles back and forth to Lynchburg all season.

Then there’s the stuff that wasn’t tax-deductible. In late-August that year, my birthday was approaching, and I was sitting in the stands of a Lynchburg game with my brother and my ex-wife. It just so happened that the Hillcats were doing an auction for the jerseys they were wearing that night. I had no money, being laid off from my job in April that year, due to my company losing some major sponsors after the economy went south. But I had an idea. I asked for nothing on my birthday except money to win a jersey. I figured if I could win a jersey, I’d get to go down on the field and talk to the player, and maybe set up an interview.

There was some small thought in my mind that maybe this site would be something one day. I mention that I made $434.33 in that first year, but most of that came in the off-season. I had made $65 heading into August, writing almost daily since January. I made another $45 in August, but wouldn’t see that money until the end of September. There were only 45,000 page views that month. The idea that this site would become anything was just flat-out insane. But if it was going to become something, I needed to do more than just watching games, giving thoughts, and doing the same thing every other site was doing. I needed to talk to players, do interviews, and get things that no one else was getting.

I was bidding on two jerseys that night — a glorious Chase d’Arnaud jersey that was covered in dirt after he slid into home plate to score a run, and a Rudy Owens jersey that he had on while he was sitting on the bench, not starting that night. D’Arnaud. Owens. You know, the future. I had to get an interview with one of them. I was outbid on the D’Arnaud jersey, and it was going over $100, which was my birthday money cap. The Owens one was still in play, and I bid. I stood at the table as the expiration came close, holding a pen, making sure no one would out-bid me. I watched as a guy walked up to the table, placed a higher bid, and then instantly out-bid him to let him know I was here to win. That guy quickly moved on to another jersey. He also happened to be John Fredland, a good friend after that night, and someone who has been around Pirates blogs forever.

They flipped the tables and I had won. I talked to Owens and set up an interview, finding out the best place to meet him. I also ran into d’Arnaud and set one up with him. He actually ended up being my first interview. I went in with a sheet of ten prepared questions, a $50 media recorder I bought that afternoon, and a shit-ton of nerves. It was total amateur hour. Over time I got better, and talked to more players from that group. Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris, #FreeMattHague, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, Tony Sanchez, and others.

I couldn’t wait for the next season. I was going to do so much with this site that no one was reading yet. There was a new group coming up from West Virginia, headlined by Robbie Grossman (The Damn Future!), and I was going to cover every game, and interview every player, and grow this site into something that could at least pay my cell phone bill one day, or at least keep my work ethic up until I found a job. Unfortunately, that team moved to Bradenton, so my live coverage was shot. I ended up traveling to other cities, crashing on people’s couches, sleeping in my car at rest stops hoping not to get murdered, and finding ways to get live coverage. I still had that crazy idea that this could be something.

Over time, this site became my job. I started making more money as the years went on, but I kept spending that money to keep growing. I made just over $6,000 in 2010, and spent over half of that covering games and running the site. I released the Prospect Guide in 2011 for the first time, and that actually took me to $35,000, which sounds like a real salary, but I ended up spending $23,000 on hosting, travel, publishing fees, and live coverage for our other writers. But for the first time, this job actually made a profit that could simulate some sort of low paying job.

Things were still rough. I didn’t know how much the site could continue growing. I had blown through any savings I had, and by 2012 I stopped working part-time jobs in order to put full effort into the site. I don’t want to say that the site ended my marriage that year, because overall it was a shit situation. But if you ever have a really bad marriage, and you want to push it immediately to divorce, my personal advice is to start a sports blog and hold strong to the belief that it will be a job one day. Also, make the decision to pay writers, rather than paying for an apartment so you can move out of your grandma’s vacant house, which is way too close to where your family lives. Just a few pro tips here.

The site did eventually work out. I was able to do normal things, like buy a car, and then move to Bradenton and rent a place so I could cover a lot more. But the site eventually hit a wall. I was still trying to grow it, and it was reaching the ceiling for traffic, topping out at 11 M page views per year. Ad networks were getting incredibly inconsistent, and the rates were going down. I needed to have more coverage to increase page views, and I needed to increase at a faster rate to make up for the declining ad dollars. But more coverage meant more money spent, and that was a recipe for debt. I soon got to a point where the site would have had to shut down, or it would have to make a drastic change.

That change came a year ago today, when I announced that the site would be moving to subscription. It was something I thought about for years. How much could we do if everyone reading the site paid just $2-3 per month? That amount of money was practically nothing. You spend that much on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis without thinking twice. But the subscription model was largely untested.

I started seeing more and more prospect sites making the jump to subscription, with many of them having the same issues I was having (even the ones that were selling books and asking for donations, like we were). Then, in 2014, the subscription wave hit Pittsburgh when Dejan Kovacevic started his site. But the biggest thing came that off-season, when I was approached by another site about moving the site behind their paywall. If I was going to do that, I was going to do it myself, for half the price they’d charge per month, and with total control of the content.

So we made that move a year ago. And while it was inevitable (the site would be shut down or a subscription site anyway by this point if we hadn’t made the switch), I was still terrified. I had spent six years of my life, making huge personal and financial sacrifices along the way, with only one focus and one goal every single day: making this site work. And it was either going to succeed as a subscription model, or fail out of rejection for switching to that model.

The initial responses included some of my biggest fears.

“I love the site, but not enough to pay.”

“I just don’t pay for online content.”

“You can get free information anywhere.”

To be honest, I was angry. I felt betrayed. I had spent so much time and money, and made so many sacrifices to make the site work, and the response from some was that they refused to pay, either because they felt the site was worth less than an extra cup of coffee per month, or because they were holding onto some principle. As for the “free information”, I can’t tell you how many message board posts I’ve seen this past year talking about how there is no information on a specific prospect, while we always had several articles on the same guy. That kind of stuff never happened when we were free. You could always find the information on our site. And the free information out there was either completely wrong, not very in-depth, or about six months behind our reporting on the players.

But I don’t want to focus on the people who walked away this time last year, because honestly, I got over it. The reality is that you’re not going to sell to everyone, and that was something I knew going in. A lot of you eventually returned, and I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to receive weekly e-mails saying how much you missed the site.

What I do want to focus on are the people who subscribed in the first year. I don’t think there is a way for me to thank you enough. I’ve said it many times. I gave free and discounted Prospect Guides this year as a thanks. And while this story has gotten long and probably cheesy, and most of you might have skipped to the “What’s next” section (“holy hell, there’s another section I have to write” he said, while staring at a word count usually reserved for Jameson Taillon analysis articles), I figured this would be the best way to show you where I was coming from.

Before the site went subscription, I was constantly wondering how long it could go on. What do I do when it fails? What happens with the $20,000 in debt that I had built up over time? I questioned every decision and motivation I had in putting so much faith in this site working. I wondered how my life had been different if I never even decided to start this site, or if I just asked for a video game for my birthday in 2009, and settled for a beer that night and a normal game recap from the stands.

Thanks to you guys, I now have a normal life. After the site went subscription, I immediately erased all of my debt. Well, except student loans. Those things will be with me until the day I die. I was able to actually make plans to travel for live coverage without having to wonder if there would be money for that trip. We spent over $45,000 this year just on live coverage and travel. That’s more money than the site made combined from 2009-2011.

On a more personal note, I was able to make normal decisions. I was able to buy things without thinking “in what way does this help the site?” I decided to splurge for the first time in six years and buy a new video game system. I was going to go with a PS4. Then I changed my mind and bought a bunch of cheaper, retro video game systems for the same total price. So some of your subscriptions went to furnishing Pirates Prospects HQ with a Nintendo 64, Super Nintendo, GameCube, Sega Genesis, original Playstation, original XBox, and a Gameboy, along with the reminder that you can’t see the Gameboy screen unless the sun is directly hitting the screen, and then you can only kind of see it (but hey, it was $20). It was a weird feeling. I felt guilty buying something non-site related for the first time in six years (although maybe I need to incorporate my love for video games into articles more often).

The retro video game station at Pirates Prospects HQ.
The retro video game station at Pirates Prospects HQ.

The most important thing is that when the thought came up of “How long will this last?”, it was no longer out of my control. I didn’t have to worry about the free/ad-based model inevitably failing one day. The site will now end when I decide that I can no longer run it. And I plan to run this site for a long time.

The Future of Pirates Prospects, 2016 Version

Last year, I had different levels of goals for the site. The most important one was what I needed to make the site work, while providing plenty of coverage and upgrades. I needed 5,000 subscriptions for that to happen. As of this writing, we’re around 5,500 with a few weeks remaining before the one year mark.

I mentioned above that we spent $45,000 in live coverage and travel this year, and it was money well spent. We had more live coverage this year than any other year on the site, and it wasn’t close. We covered every team, and had multiple writers seeing each team throughout the year. We covered things that we could never dream of before, like the Arizona Fall League and the Dominican Summer League, giving a deeper understanding of how each league impacted the development of the players.

I was also able to bring Sean McCool and Ryan Palencer down for extra Spring Training help this year, which was awesome for the long-term, because I found out that they’re both willing to work for my homemade chicken parm this year, in lieu of an actual paycheck, which means we’ll be able to afford to expand the live coverage even more in 2016.

We were able to expand things on the site. We spent a few thousand dollars to add a stats database, which gave live updates in the Prospect Watch each night, along with stats for every player who played, all on one page. This year we’re going to expand that to upgrade the player pages with live stats, along with every report we’ve ever posted on each player throughout the years.

We spent a few thousand dollars creating an app, which is currently only out on Android. However, good news for Apple users: the app was approved this week and submitted to the store. It should be available in about 5-10 days, so expect it by early next week. We’re still ironing out a few smaller refresh issues with the app (one problem about subscription sites not being normal is that people don’t create software for them, making it difficult to get something that works out of the box).

The site servers got a huge upgrade, to the point where we can avoid the site crashing when big news comes out. We spend about $10,000 per year now just hosting the site.

I also upgraded my camera equipment, buying a new camera and a new lens in the last six months, leading to better photos and higher quality video, which you’ve seen throughout Spring Training.

We’re also supporting our fellow subscription sites, paying for subscriptions to some of the best draft coverage at D1Baseball and Prep Baseball Report, along with Baseball America and ESPN Insider. This is all so we can be better prepared when draft day rolls around.

Finally, the biggest thing was a cleaner site design, and the removal of those ad networks that got to be very annoying at times. We may change the look soon, gearing to an even cleaner site that is even easier to navigate.

So what’s next?

Number one, a lot of live coverage.

Already this year, I’ve been able to book trips through the end of May. I’ll be in Pittsburgh for the opening series, then Altoona for their opening series later that week. I’ll come back home for some Bradenton coverage (Marauders and extended Spring Training, along with injury updates), then will hit the road at the end of April for a series in West Virginia. After a few more weeks home, I’ll go to Indianapolis for a series in May, and will then cover the Puerto Rico/Miami series at the end of May.

I’ve got live coverage planned after that, but it’s too early to book. I’ll be going back to the Dominican in June, getting reports on the next Marte’s and Polanco’s and Yeudy Garcia’s. The second half of the season will have live reports from Morgantown, Bristol, the GCL, instructs, and the Arizona Fall League. I’d also like to add the Dominican Winter League to the mix, although that can be difficult with the Prospect Guide being written at the same time.

We’ve already got writers returning in Indianapolis (Ryan Palencer), Altoona (Sean McCool), and our general writers (John Dreker and Wilbur Miller). Ed Giles will return for analysis in Pittsburgh, and Sean will help him out with that coverage. David Hague will return as our photographer in Pittsburgh, along with some trips for minor league photos. We’re close to adding a writer in West Virginia, which would cover all of the full-season teams.

I’d also like to expand the coverage at the Major League level, especially in a year when so many prospects are set to arrive. And my goal here is to add a full-time writer at some point this year. We need 8,000 subscriptions per year to make this happen. We fell short of that in our first year, but managed to get everything else.

I’m not going to ask you to do anything more than subscribing like you are now, although if you want to refer some friends, or purchase some gift subscriptions, I wouldn’t be against it. I’m looking into some direct advertising options, which wouldn’t be as intrusive as the ad networks of the past, and would help lead to further expansions (if you’re interested in advertising, e-mail tim@piratesprospects.com). I wanted to make the site work the way it did in year one. Year two, I’m going to do everything I can to expand and add a full-time writer in Pittsburgh, freeing me up for a lot more prospect coverage (and reducing the risk of burnout).

My goal for this site has always been to make it the best site possible for you. That got a lot easier under the subscription model. We expanded a ton in the first year under this new model, way more than we ever did in the site’s previous six years as a free site. I’m looking forward to a lot more expansions in year two of the subscription model, and year eight of the site. I’m hoping that you guys will be along for the ride.

For those of you who are already subscribing, all you need to do is let the auto-renew process to stay on board (if there’s a problem with this process, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me at tim@piratesprospects.com and I’ll get it fixed ASAP). If you’d like to upgrade your subscription, you can do that at any time on the subscription page. And if you’re not a subscriber yet, but made it this far in the article and you haven’t decided that you’ve read enough of my work, then you can subscribe here and get our content all year long.

TL;DR – It was really difficult building the site up, then I made the tough decision to go subscription and was like “This is probably the end of the site”, and a few people were like “Yep, it is for us”, but a lot of you were like “No, we’ll gladly pay $29.99! What an amazing value for such quality work, Tim!”, and then some of those other people were like “I miss you and still think about you, I want you back”, and I was like “Oh that’s kind of weird, but either way, thanks so much everyone. You don’t know what this means to me, but I’m going to write a damn novel to try and explain” and you guys were probably like “Nah, we’re more interested in what’s in store in year two. You know, like the title implied we’d be getting to about 2,000 words sooner” and so I’m like “Oh, that’s cool. Well thanks still, and year two is going to be even better. You should subscribe if you haven’t, and also here are some articles we published on the site the last two days.”

**First Pitch is a free article, and I’d normally put my plug for all non-subscribers to subscribe for the site here. But honestly, if you’re not subscribing at this point in the article, then you’re not subscribing at all.

**Forget Power: A High OBP, Optimized Pirates Lineup Will Have More Offense. Breaking down the lineup optimization for the Pirates, along with their new high OBP approach, and how this will lead to more runs in 2016 than the 2015 offense had.

**Pirate City Notes: Connor Joe and Luis Heredia Show Progress. Two homers and a triple for Joe, and some velocity for Heredia out of the bullpen. Also, an injury update on Stephen Tarpley.

**Pirates Notes: Cole Continues Progressing, Offense Clicking, Prospect Reports. Recap from Wednesday’s games in both camps.

**Pirates Reassign Guido Knudson and Wilfredo Boscan to Minor League Camp. Today’s roster moves, as the Pirates slowly make their way to 25.

**Pirates Release Nine Minor League Players. The Pirates released some guys on the minor league side. See who they released, and info on each player here (along with some signings).

**Injury Updates: Hughes Has a Muscle Strain, Kang Continues Modified Running. Yesterday’s injury reports, with the big news being an injury for Jared Hughes.

**Fangraphs Rates the Top 22 Prospects in the Pirates’ System. One of the final prospect rankings to be released.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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