Morning Report: The Biggest Problem in Pittsburgh is MLB’s Economic Structure

The Fourth of July was this past week, which for me always means watching the movie Independence Day.

In the final act of that movie, the US puts together a long-shot plan to beat the aliens, who had been absolutely and literally destroying them the entire movie. They would fly up into space with a recovered spaceship, upload a virus to the mothership, and that would allow them a small window of time to beat the aliens on earth. Even with that small window of time, it took a precise shot at the right moment to bring down the alien ship.

Oh yeah, spoiler alert.

I’m not going to break down the movie too much and get into things like “How do aliens with the technology for space travel and a laser that destroys a city not have anti-virus software?” But I will say this: the plan to take down the aliens was a bad one. It required a small window of time, and even in that window, the chances were slim and required the right shot.

That’s a standard for any underdog story. In Star Wars, for example, the rebels had one target that would take down the Death Star, and even if they got to the point where they could take a shot, it required the perfect shot to win.

None of those plans are good ones.

But it’s all they had.

If the humans in Independence Day, or the rebels in Star Wars had the same technology as their counterparts, they probably would have put together a much better plan. But they didn’t have those resources, and that meant their only choice was a plan involving a limited window of attack, and in that window, a perfect shot is needed in order to win.

You guys probably know where I’m going with this, so I don’t need to expand by breaking down Marvel movies.

Small market teams in Major League Baseball are the humans in Independence Day, or the rebels in Star Wars. MLB is set up so that when they have a shot at winning, it’s a limited window. We saw that with the Pirates in 2013-15. And we’ve seen with other teams like Cleveland and Kansas City that it takes the perfect shot when you’re in that window in order to win it all (or to get within outs of winning it all in Cleveland’s case) before the window closes.

It’s not like that for big market teams. They’re the aliens with a death laser in Independence Day, or the empire with the death laser in Star Wars. The key difference is that MLB allows for big market teams to patch up their mistakes. They can’t be taken down for good by a virus or a shot into the thermal exhaust port. Meanwhile, small markets have almost zero margin of error when it comes to mistakes, and still have that small window requiring the perfect shot.

I’m going to be talking about a lot of problems surrounding the Pirates this week, both involving Bob Nutting and the front office led by Neal Huntington. So don’t think that they are off the hook, and I’m saying that all of the problems this team has are a result of MLB.

What I am going to say is that MLB’s economic structure is the biggest problem facing the Pirates and small market teams, and a lot of their current or past issues wouldn’t even be noticed in bigger markets. Those issues are amplified by MLB’s structure, making them appear worse than they are. And they appear that way because they are mistakes a small market team can’t afford to make, due to the low margin of error.

So let’s review some of these mistakes, keeping in mind how big market teams would react in the same situation.

Salary Dumps of Francisco Liriano and Juan Nicasio

These moves ultimately don’t matter, but they got massively negative perception. The Pirates traded Francisco Liriano and two prospects for Drew Hutchison, with the ultimate goal being to remove Liriano’s contract from the books. They let Juan Nicasio go for free last year in order to save about $600 K.

The moves don’t matter because they had no long-term impact to the team. Nicasio was gone after the season, and the guy the Phillies ended up getting for him is no longer in their system. Liriano was struggling and was worse the following year. The prospects they gave up — Harold Ramirez and Reese McGuire — were already declining in value, and have only gone down since then. At best, you’re looking at a defensive backup in the majors from McGuire, which the Pirates already have in Jacob Stallings.

The moves did get the negative perception because they were about salary, whether the Pirates admit that fully or not.

So how would a big market team handle these situations? They’d just keep the player and eat the contract. They wouldn’t need to trade prospects to get another team to take on salary, and they wouldn’t need to worry about saving $600 K on a reliever.

Even if they did need to cut salary, which the Yankees did when they ate half of A.J. Burnett’s salary in the trade to the Pirates (which was more about their ability to stay under the luxury tax), it’s not something that’s remembered. While Pirates fans celebrated that steal over the Yankees, the Yankees went on to post winning records the next six seasons, with two appearances in the ALCS. You think Yankees fans are thinking about dumping Burnett like Pirates fans think about dumping Liriano?

Big market teams don’t need to worry about fitting under a budget, and if they do, it’s a massively high budget. Small market teams need to make decisions based on money. I’ll get into the Pirates’ money focus in a later article, but regardless of their approach, they’re having to make decisions that big markets don’t even have to consider.

The 2015-16 Offseason

There is no topic I hate more than the 2015-16 offseason complaining. And that’s coming from someone who also thought it was a bad offseason. I understand the constant complaints, as it marked the change from a winning team to a losing team. But it gets tiring hearing over and over that they had a bad offseason two and a half years ago.

Big market teams have bad offseasons, either with inaction, or by signing bad contracts. And it doesn’t sink them for three years or more. Look at the Angels. They’ve made a lot of bad decisions, and they have only lost two years in a row in one stretch since 1992. And they only lost two years in a row once, which was the last two years, although they’re at .500 at the time of this writing.

A lot of the complaints about that offseason were that the Pirates didn’t spend or didn’t add to the team. Those are both wrong. They spent more money in 2016 and 2017 than any other time in franchise history, and spent to a level that other small market teams spent to. And they added to the team, but they added bad players with low upsides.

The real problem with that offseason was that the Pirates were split with their focus. They had a wave of prospects set to arrive, and were waiting on them for the next stretch of contending. But they were also still winners, and wanted to preserve that. So they tried to win and rebuild at the same time, which led to low-upside additions to bridge the gap to the prospects. And relying on prospects to lead your winning efforts is a bad strategy, since you don’t know when they’ll be up, you don’t know how productive they’ll be, and they will need adjustments when they arrive.

I’ve talked plenty about those mistakes for the Pirates, and will definitely talk more about it in the future. It can’t be ignored.

But let me underscore this: Do you think big market teams ever need to decide between rebuilding and going for it? The Yankees had a “rebuilding year” in 2016 and they won 84 games. The next year they went to game seven of the ALCS.

Big market teams only have to focus on winning, with no concern over when that winning will end, and no lengthy rebuilding in the future. Small market teams need to make a decision when they’re winning on when is the right time to go all-in and commit to the window. If you wait too long, or you put efforts into extending your window, then you’re going to be in the mess the Pirates are in right now.

If anything, the Pirates have a good approach at the moment for a big market team, but obviously that doesn’t work when you don’t have big market money to spend. And that’s a massive problem where they aren’t facing the reality of their economic disadvantage.

The Drafts

A big complaint for the Pirates is that they can’t draft and don’t have any prospects. I don’t think either are correct. I will have an article on drafting coming up, and my concern there is more the development than the drafting. But let’s save that for a second.

I’m not going to get into how big market teams draft, because there are big market teams who draft and develop well, which has led to some of the super teams we see now. Instead, let’s look at why the Pirates get criticized for their drafting.

The difference between big and small markets is right there in the criticism for the Pirates. They can’t afford to go out and sign the top free agents like the Yankees or Dodgers. They can’t just ignore the farm system and trade prospects for established guys. If they want impact guys, they need to draft or sign them as amateur players, and develop them into those impact guys.

That is a problem for the Pirates right now, but I think a bigger problem is that small market teams only have one good way to getting impact talent, while big market teams have many different avenues to get the same thing.

A farm system fueled by good drafting and development is a necessity for a small market team. It’s an added bonus for a big market team.

Franchise Players

It was the right call for the Pirates to move on from Andrew McCutchen. He’s not an MVP anymore, and he would have been gone after this season. That is assuming they didn’t extend him, which would have been a disaster.

And that sucks for fans, because McCutchen was a franchise player. Fans did boo him when he struggled the last few years, but in large part he was the most beloved player by the fanbase, and someone that fans wanted to see retire as a Pirate. And when he was traded, a lot of fans decided they were done with the team.

That’s not an issue for big market teams. They either buy up franchise players during their declining years and ride them out to the end, or they keep the franchise guys they have until the end. It’s not a reality for small market teams to keep their franchise players for their entire careers. Even if the player makes huge financial concessions, like Evan Longoria in Tampa, the eventual split is inevitable.

The Yankees didn’t bat an eye when Derek Jeter was making eight figures as a replacement level player his final two years. They kept him after he was a 2-3 WAR player the previous three years, while making $15-17 M a year.

Think about that for a second. Francisco Cervelli already has over 2 WAR this season and is making $10 M a year, and that’s seen as a bad contract for the Pirates. Imagine paying him 50% more for that same production over the entire season, and doing it multiple years. That would be regarded as a horrible contract.

McCutchen was a 3.6 WAR player last year, and is currently on pace for 2.5 WAR this year. If the Pirates had extended him, even with a discount to $15 M per year, that would look like a bad deal.

And that’s the problem with franchise players. Big markets can bring in stars, or keep their own stars, and they don’t have to worry about production or value. Small markets have to look beyond the emotional attachment that fans have to a player and only focus on the value provided.

Other Leagues

Big market teams have a sizeable advantage in MLB. I could go on with more examples, but the best one is to point to other leagues that have a salary floor, salary cap, and equal revenue sharing that allows all teams to spend up to the cap.

I didn’t grow up a Pirates fan. They were at best my number two team, and a team I followed as close as I followed the Braves or Cubs — aka, they were on TV in my area. I hear a lot that I don’t know what Pirates fans have gone through with all of the losing and bad management. But I know.

I grew up an Orioles fan. They didn’t have 20 years of losing, but they had 14. They also have a bad owner, which is a primary reason I’m no longer an Orioles fan, so I understand those complaints very well from Pirates fans who don’t like Nutting.

Pittsburgh isn’t special. It’s not a city that has seen considerably worse in terms of losing. Yes, the Pirates hold the record. But long stretches of losing happen all around baseball for small market teams. The Orioles lost for 14 years. The Rays lost for the first ten years, and have lost the last five. And as a former Orioles fan who now lives in Tampa, I can tell you that Pirates fans aren’t alone in hating their small market owner.

Major League Baseball is set up in a way where it’s incredibly easy for small market teams to go on extended losing streaks. If you’ve got a front office making bad decisions, you’re going to be stuck in a huge hole that takes years to climb out of. If you have a smart front office, you’ve got a limited window to contend. And these are somehow just accepted.

Then you look at other sports. The Steelers and Penguins can operate the same way as the Giants and Rangers. There aren’t two sets of rules in those leagues, and there aren’t market sizes to consider, because the leagues are designed to put all teams on the same playing field. If you’re smart, you win. If you make bad moves, you lose. That’s also why the Ravens in Baltimore and the Lightning in Tampa are successful, while their MLB counterparts routinely have losing seasons.

The Pirates have some problems, and I’ll be writing about those this week. But those problems are only amplified by the lack of competitive balance in MLB, and to me, that’s a much bigger issue than any complaints about Nutting or Huntington — legitimate or not.


Today’s Starter and Notes: The Pittsburgh Pirates won 4-1 over the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday afternoon. The Pirates now take on the Washington Nationals for three games at PNC Park. Ivan Nova will be on the mound today for his 17th start, coming off of seven earned runs over five innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers in his last start. The scheduled Nationals starter is Jefry Rodriguez, who has a 5.52 ERA in 14.2 innings, with 13 strikeouts and a 1.43 WHIP. His last outing was one shutout inning of relief four days ago against the Miami Marlins.

The minor league schedule includes Clay Holmes making a start for Bradenton tonight so he can stay on schedule for a spot start against the Milwaukee Brewers during Saturday’s doubleheader. Domingo Robles gets his 17th start for West Virginia. He has allowed two earned runs in each of his last four starts. His two starts prior to that streak saw him give up a total of one run over ten innings. Fourth round pick Aaron Shortridge gets the start for Morgantown. He went five innings for the first time as a pro in his last start, allowing one run. Bristol starter Roger Santana gave up one run over five innings two starts ago, then threw five shutout frames in his last outing. Indianapolis and Altoona are both off until Thursday for the IL/EL All-Star break.

MLB: Pittsburgh (41-48) vs Nationals (45-44) 7:05 PM
Probable starter: Ivan Nova (4.48 ERA, 71:17 SO/BB, 92.1 IP)

AAA: Indianapolis (48-39) vs Toledo (49-38) 7:05 PM 7/12 (season preview)
Probable starter: TBD (0.00 ERA, 0:0 SO/BB, 0.0 IP)

AA: Altoona (45-39) @ Erie (41-35) 7:05 PM 7/12 (season preview)
Probable starter: TBD (0.00 ERA, 0:0 SO/BB, 0.0 IP)

High-A: Bradenton (42-40) vs Lakeland (46-39) 6:30 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Clay Holmes (0.00 ERA, 0:0 SO/BB, 0.0 IP)

Low-A: West Virginia (46-37) vs Hagerstown (33-52) 7:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Domingo Robles (3.19 ERA, 69:17 SO/BB, 84.2 IP)

Short-Season A: Morgantown (10-13) vs Auburn (13-9) 7:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Aaron Shortridge (3.86 ERA, 15:4 SO/BB, 14.0 IP)

Rookie: Bristol (9-9) vs Princeton (12-7) 7:00 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Roger Santana (3.38 ERA, 9:3 SO/BB, 13.1 IP)

GCL: Pirates (6-10) vs Tigers East 12:00 PM (season preview)

DSL: Pirates1 (14-17) vs Indians 10:30 AM (season preview)

DSL: Pirates2 (13-18) vs Colorado 10:30 AM (season preview)


From Saturday, highlights from two of the top prospects in the system. First a Cole Tucker double, which also shows off the speed of Alfredo Reyes..

Then the first pro homer by Travis Swaggerty


7/8: Francisco Cervelli activated from disabled list. Jacob Stallings optioned to Indianapolis.

7/7: Pirates activate Michael Feliz, recall Alex McRae from Indianapolis. Dovydas Neverauskas and Josh Smoker optioned to Indianapolis.

7/7: Pirates released Felix Vinicio, Pablo Santana and Carlos Garcia.

7/6: Jake Brentz placed on Bradenton disabled list.

7/6: John O’Reilly assigned to Bristol. Sent back to GCL on 7/7 (really happened)

7/6: Rafelin Lorenzo assigned to GCL Pirates on rehab. Raul Hernandez assigned to West Virginia.

7/6: Jin-De Jhang activated from Altoona disabled list. John Bormann placed on disabled list.

7/6: Clay Holmes optioned to Indianapolis. Pirates recall Jordan Luplow.

7/6: Raul Siri assigned to Morgantown.

7/6: Pirates sign Zack Kone

7/5: Royals claim Enny Romero

7/5: Francisco Cervelli assigned to Altoona on rehab.

7/5: Dylan Busby assigned to GCL on rehab.

7/4: Pirates recall Josh Smoker.

7/4: Scooter Hightower promoted to Altoona. Ryan Haug assigned to GCL Pirates.

7/4: Jason Delay activated from Bradenton disabled list.

7/3: Pirates released Larry Alcime.

7/3: Pirates sign Michael Burrows.

7/3: Pirates recall Dovydas Neverauskas. Tanner Anderson optioned to Indianapolis.

7/3: Montana DuRapau promoted to Indianapolis. Erich Weiss placed on disabled list.

7/3: Travis MacGregor activated from West Virginia disabled list. Gavin Wallace promoted to Bradenton.

7/2: Pirates signed a lot of international players.

7/2: Pirates signed even more international players.

7/2: Pirates sign Grant Koch and Mike Gretler.

7/2: Nick Kingham recalled. Jose Osuna optioned to Indianapolis.

7/2: Enny Romero designated for assignment.

7/2: Sean Rodriguez assigned to Indianapolis on rehab

7/1: Calvin Mitchell activated from West Virginia disabled list.

6/30: Ryan Haug assigned to Bradenton.

6/30: Pirates sign Alec Rennard.

6/29: Chad Kuhl placed on disabled list. Max Moroff recalled from Indianapolis.

6/29: Brett Pope promoted to Bradenton. Matt Eckelman promoted to Altoona.

6/29: Evan Piechota activated from Bradenton disabled list.


One former Pittsburgh Pirates player born on this date, plus a couple games of note. The only former Pirate born on this date is Coot Veal, who pinch-hit for the team on April 17, 1962. Veal turns 86 today. In his only game for the Pirates, he pinch-hit for pitcher Tom Sturdivant in the second inning and struck out looking. He spent the next 19 days on the Pirates bench before being sent to the minors. A month later, he was traded to the Detroit Tigers.

On this date in 1912, the Pirates sent their young pitching phenom Marty O’Toole to the mound, where he faced off against a young pitcher for the Phillies named Eppa Rixey. Back in 1911, the Pirates paid $22,500 to sign O’Toole, which was a huge sum back then. Early in the career it looked like a great purchase, but his star quickly faded. In this game however, O’Toole out-pitched Rixey, who would go on to win 266 games and get elected to the Hall of Fame. The Pirates won 2-0 and Hall of Famer Max Carey plated the go-ahead run with an RBI triple in the sixth inning.

The link above includes a game recap/boxscore for the Pirates 9-8 win in 12 innings over the Phillies on this date in 1977. The winning hit came off the bat of Mario Mendoza and the losing pitcher was former Bucco Gene Garber. The pitching match-up that day was Steve Carlton versus John Candelaria, and closer Kent Tekulve lost a two-run lead in the ninth to send it to extra innings.