The Pirates and the CBA: Help is Not on the Way

So baseball has a new CBA, far sooner than I thought it would.  For the Pirates, that’s a good thing.  I had trouble resist the hope that half or even all of the season would go down the tubes.  After all, the Pirates are clearly going to be very bad again and the minor league season would still go forward.  The reality, though, is that the Pirates badly need to move into the next phase of their rebuild.  That’d be the phase where they abandon the ultra-cheap, sub-replacement deadenders and start cutting bait on the stalled projects, in favor of guys who might represent the future in Pittsburgh.

And that’s the only significant benefit to the Pirates:   The fact that a CBA got done at all, not what’s in it.  By far the most predictable element of this CBA is that it made no fundamental changes in the game’s economics.  It just nibbled around the edges.  There was exactly zero chance from day one that the final product would put the Pirates anywhere close to a level economic playing field with . . . well . . . most of the rest of MLB.

Of course, there’s no payroll cap.  That’s hardly surprising, given that neither side was pushing for one.  Leaving aside the question whether a workable one is possible (it’s not, without radical changes in the game’s revenue distribution), it’d be wise to remember something NMR commented on the other day:  There just aren’t many people who care about a payroll cap.  That includes fans.  The Pirates have been uniquely non-competitive on the spending front, and only a handful of other teams are close to their miserly level.  Even if Bob Nutting really pushed for a payroll cap, he’d never get the eight votes it’d take to block a CBA.  How much impetus for a payroll cap will there ever be if the players, the large majority of teams and the large majority of fans don’t want to see one?

One perfectly good illustration came out of this agreement.  As part of the deal, the players agreed to drop their pending grievance against MLB.  They did not, however, drop their grievance against the Pirates, Rays, Athletics and Marlins (for simplicity’s sake, let’s call them the Deadbeats), alleging a failure to spend revenue sharing proceeds properly.  Among other things, this tells us that there wasn’t much support among the owners for insisting that the latter grievance be dropped.  That, in turn, tells us that some of the owners are getting tired of paying the docking fees for Nutting’s yacht.  Really, if they believed the Deadbeats were spending their revenue sharing handouts to improve the product on the field, as they’re supposed to do, isn’t it more likely that the other owners would have pushed for that grievance to be dropped?

The Pirates stand out even among the Deadbeats.  According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, in the Nutting era, the Rays have finished as high as 20th in MLB in payroll and have averaged 26.6.  The Marlins have finished 15th, 17th and 19th, and averaged 25.6.  The A’s have finished 23rd and 24th (they were 18th or 19th for four straight years before 2008), and averaged 26.6.  The Pirates were 22nd once and 24th twice, and averaged 27.1.  The Pirates have finished last the past three years, and are a strong favorite to make it four in a row.  The other three Deadbeats have totaled three last place finishes in 14 years, only one since 2009 and none since 2015.

Help for the Pirates isn’t coming from MLB or any CBA, not now or in the future.  This is all on Nutting.  Since he became principal owner, the Pirates have been a composite 161 games under .500.  The Marlins have been worse, at 201 under, although they’ve won two World Series during a stretch in which the Pirates have had just four winning seasons and no playoff series wins.  The A’s have been 45 games over, the Rays 195 over.  The deck is stacked strongly against lower-revenue teams, but it’s not hopeless if the owner doesn’t stand in the way.  I have no idea what the odds of this are, but the best thing that could come out of this CBA, from the Pirate fan’s perspective, would be for the players to win their grievance against Nutting.

Moving on from the phantom payroll cap issue, the competitive balance tax is another area that’s produced consternation among some Pittsburgh writers.  That’s because the tax threshold got raised.  It’s hard to see why it matters.  All the CBT does is reduce the competition for premium talents.  The owners don’t want to see a Harper or a Scherzer triggering a bidding war that rockets them up toward ten figures.  But the Pirates don’t swim in those waters.  They’re even afraid of the kiddie pool.  The CBT has little or nothing to do with second- or even third-tier free agents, and that’s too rich for the Pirates, too.  There’s nothing in the CBT to stop the Pirates from loading up on players who can’t even dream of batting .200, or waiver wonder relievers.  There was a lower CBT threshold the last two years and it didn’t stop the Pirates from putting a AAA team on the field (no offense to actual AAA teams).  That’s where the real problem is, and a lower CBT threshold won’t solve it.  The CBT is irrelevant to Pirate fans.

A few other CBA provisions could have some limited impact on the Pirates.  The reward for having top prospects on the roster from the season opener is nice.  Certain finishes in the ROY or MVP voting earn the team extra draft picks.  This should be an added incentive to bring Roansy Contreras or Oneil Cruz, among others, north on day one.

The DH — leaving aside the fact that the concept of a DH is evil incarnate — could help a little.  The Pirates have shown little interest in bat-first players over the years, so guys like Yoshi Tsutsugo and Michael Chavis could get some opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise.  On the down side, being able to put a guy like that in the lineup might encourage Derek Shelton to keep putting no-bat players on the field.  One especially horrid suggestion, which I’ve seen a number of times in the off-season, is giving Cole Tucker time at first.  On the intelligence scale, that ranks about even with this.  Then there’s one writer’s suggestion from a day or two ago that the Pirates could use the DH to avoid exposing Oneil Cruz defensively.  No, just . . . no.

The draft lottery is . . . meh.  I’ve never believed any team “tanks” to get a higher draft position.  To the extent there is such a thing as “tanking,” the Pirates clearly did it in 2021 and Arizona did not, yet the D’backs lost nine more games.  It’s so hard to lose 100+ games that you can’t really plan for it.  It just happens.  I also don’t see a problem with the provision that a revenue sharing-recipient can’t get a top six pick more than two straight years.  If there was no lottery and the Pirates had a top six pick in 2022-24, that’d be an indication that Ben Cherington’s plans were failing.  The team would have much bigger problems than drafting in any particular spot.

I’ve seen some wailing in at least one quarter that the CBA expanded the playoffs only to 12 teams and not 14.  I’d rather the field stayed at ten, if even that.  The Steelers are a perfect illustration.  They fluked into a spot in the expanded NFL playoffs, then showed on nearly every single play against the Chiefs that they had no business in the post-season.  Did that blowout make their season a “success?”

Well, that’s all I’ve got.

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