The Pirates need some trust.
I wrote that following the 2015 season, before the offseason had really begun. They won 98 games the year before, but lost in the Wild Card game. They had won three years in a row, but the Wild Card games were tiring on Pirates fans, and they wanted more. Despite the success, the Pirates didn’t have any trust heading into that offseason.
They didn’t do themselves any favors either. They limited their offseason additions to the likes of Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong, while also parting ways with a few veterans and vocally waiting for the prospects to arrive. I’m not going to break this down any further. Search this site for No-Man’s Land and you will find all of the analysis you need on that offseason, and the years that followed.
Fast-forward to today, and the Pirates need some trust. But more importantly, they need to earn it. Desperately.
Let’s look at the facts:
**Pittsburgh has no trust in Bob Nutting. They believe he’s pocketing profits, and doesn’t spend nearly as much as he can, with his only focus on winning. There is so much rage around the situation that this paragraph is going to somehow get parsed into me apologizing for Nutting, because I stated the above as a belief, and not a fact.
**Pittsburgh is a bit spoiled. The Steelers have been one of the most successful teams in the NFL. The Penguins have been successful, and are currently one of the best teams in the NHL. There always seems to be at least one team gunning for a championship in this town, and often two. That’s something that other cities wish for. But it’s expected in Pittsburgh, and when a team isn’t winning, the fans move on to the other teams that are winning.
**The Pirates haven’t helped the above with their public comments, or their approach the last few years. They can’t really say or do anything without drawing criticism and becoming a punch line — some of that earned, and some not. But the biggest issue is that they don’t come across as being straightforward with their fans about their intentions of winning. They come across as passive — as if winning isn’t really a goal, but a talking point. And what’s worse is that it has been the same for the players in the past, with a lot of the pre-season complaints being about how the players didn’t get a winning message from the front office.
**I wrote about how MLB is heavily slanted against small market teams earlier in the week. The Pirates have shown that small market teams can still compete if they’re smart and limit mistakes. But as I also wrote this week, they have fallen behind in trends across baseball, and it doesn’t help that one of the teams in their division — the Brewers — have started seeing success by being one of the leaders with the new trends.
Add it up and you get an owner who is viewed as the live-action Scrooge McDuck, a front office that has every statement about winning questioned — sometimes even inside the clubhouse — and every action mocked, a team that is behind the current trends and not rushing to adopt what is working for other teams, and all in a city that is way too used to winning, and always has winning alternatives to turn to.
It’s not a good combination, to say the least.
The Pirates need some trust, because the only way out of this is what they seem to dread: a full rebuild. They need trust because they need fans to show up at the other end of that rebuild when they’re ready to add. They need trust because they need the fans and players to know that they’re serious about winning through a rebuild process.
But it all has to be earned. And they’ve got a lot — A LOT — to do to earn that trust.
I don’t know if they’re going to do a legit rebuild, or if they’re going to continue playing the middle ground. I think they should do a rebuild. And to help get some trust back, I think they need to follow the lead of the Brewers.
I’m not talking about the way the Brewers tore everything down and spent in the $60 M range during their rebuild while reserving bigger payrolls for later. I mean, the Pirates definitely need to do that.
What I’m talking about is the communication from Bob Nutting and the front office on their plans. They need to do what the Brewers did at the end of 2015, when owner Mark Attanasio released the following letter:
December 17, 2015
Dear Brewers Fans:
During this holiday season, I want to extend my sincere thanks to you for sticking with us through a tough, challenging and–most aptly–disappointing season. You showed your loyalty by purchasing more than 2.5 million tickets to see baseball at Miller Park, which you’ve done every season over the past nine years. Only seven other MLB teams have reached this attendance milestone. And over those nine seasons, the Brewers have averaged more than 35,000 fans per home game, which is among the ten highest team averages in all of Major League Baseball.
The commitment you’ve demonstrated to the Brewers, I assure you, is equaled by my own commitment to doing better. Each of you deserves that. By doing better, I mean fielding a playoff-competitive team and one day bringing a world championship to Milwaukee. To move toward accomplishing this lofty goal, I believe we need to take a step back and build more intensively from within. Our new General Manager, David Stearns, has been spearheading this approach, which requires grinding things out, prospect by prospect and trade by trade. While we look forward to using his fresh vision to getting our baseball operations to where we want them to be, we are mindful that there is a lot of hard work to do, and we will not take any shortcuts or look for quick fixes.
Importantly, David has a great deal of flexibility to work with, as the team has just three long-term contracts remaining: Jonathan Lucroy (two years), Matt Garza (two years) and Ryan Braun (five years). As you probably know, David recruited Matt Arnold from the Tampa Bay Rays as his Assistant GM. At this month’s Winter Meetings, he and Matt started to implement their strategy, which David has articulated thematically as acquiring, developing and retaining as much young talent as we can. We do not have a rigid timetable because we believe it is vital to build a proper foundation for sustained success. I am encouraged by the level of teamwork I’ve been seeing in baseball operations and, most significantly, between David and Matt.
Even before David joined our organization, our re-evaluation effort had begun. When the start of the 2015 season told us that the first 150 days of the 2014 season had been an illusion–one ultimately supplanted by the reality of the final month of that season–we made the difficult decision to change the team’s manager. In early May, we hired Craig Counsell, already a valued special assistant to our GM, to a three-year contract. This allowed Craig five months to observe our players in the field and to start training them to play in the style that had brought him two World Series rings as a player.
With a focus on the future at the July 31 trade deadline, we exchanged veteran players who had less than two years remaining under their contracts for seven young players, four of whom saw action with the Brewers before the end of the season. A total of twelve rookies debuted this season–a club record. The performance of our lower-level Minor League affiliates provided more evidence that the talent of our prospects is improving. Our AA affiliate, the Biloxi Shuckers, went to the Southern League Championship Series this year for the first time since 2007. Moreover, Baseball America named three Brewers among the publication’s top five prospects in the Arizona Fall League.
Since the end of last season, we have traded for another seven young players, including three with Major League experience. Through all these trades, we have added fourteen prospects to our team, supplementing the players we selected in what was considered a rich 2015 draft. As reported on mlb.com, eleven of our top twenty prospects have been acquired in the past two years either through draft or trades. The restocking of the farm system has begun in earnest.
Finally, I would be remiss not to acknowledge Doug Melvin, who has transitioned from President of Baseball Operations and General Manager of the Brewers into a role as Senior Advisor. Doug’s baseball acumen, work ethic and loyalty have been an asset to the team for thirteen seasons, and he remains a valuable resource to David and our baseball operations group.
So, as we approach 2016, I want to reiterate how much the entire Brewers organization appreciates the community’s strong enthusiasm for the club. We are dedicated to building something special here in Milwaukee for you, the best fans in baseball. I thank you once again for your steadfast support.
To be honest, when I read through that letter, all I see are things that would inevitably be mocked for years by Pirates fans. The reference of how many younger players they added in trades. The touting of a Double-A championship. The vague commitments and the usual buzzwords. The reference to Baseball America accolades. Shit, Bob Nutting could write that letter word for word and Dejan Kovacevic would set the internet on fire with an article full of one-sentence paragraph hot takes.
I’ll also be honest that I don’t know how Milwaukee fans reacted to that letter the last two years. They obviously have good fan support, maintaining 2.5 million fans through two seasons of losing and two seasons where they were barely above .500. But I have a feeling that letter wouldn’t be so popular right now if they were in year three of their rebuild, rather than year two of the upswing.
But all of this just goes to highlight the situation the Pirates are in. They could write a letter like that, but it’s probably not going to build them trust. They would probably need to go beyond that by admitting their flawed approach and making more than just vague promises like the Brewers letter. And even then, it probably won’t be enough until they start showing some positive signs.
It would be a start though. It would be a step in the right direction if they came out with full honesty. If the Brewers can say they’re rebuilding, all without losing an advantage, then the Pirates don’t need to be coy about their plans in an attempt to maintain some kind of competitive advantage. And if the Pirates admit that their approach the last few years hasn’t been working, then maybe they’ll get a bit of trust that they just had a bad plan, rather than zero interest in winning.
The Pirates need to do something though, because Pittsburgh is getting toxic right now. I’ve written two articles this week criticizing the Pirates with arguments that I’ve used plenty of times over the last few years, and those articles were somehow seen as not being critical enough, or at all. That’s how crazy it is. You can actually criticize the team and it won’t be seen as critical enough, or even not critical at all.
The biggest thing they need to do is to get on board with the current MLB trends, especially the one where teams are either all-in or in full rebuild mode, rather than the dreaded middle ground. It doesn’t matter how they communicate if they’re not actually on the path to winning again.
But if they do adopt the current MLB trends and go full-rebuild, they will need to have better communication with the fans, and find a way to come across as being honest about their intentions to compete in the future. Because at this point, they’re far removed from a time when they deserved some trust, and it’s entirely on them to find a way to get that trust back.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.