It’s the end of an era in Pittsburgh. One of the city’s biggest sports stars of the last decade was traded away to the San Francisco Giants. And with the trade of Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates have removed the face of the their franchise, the man who gave Pittsburgh hope when all was lost. He made a baseball town again out of a city that was dominated by football and hockey. So before I get into analysis of the trade itself and talk about what it means for Pittsburgh in the long-term, I’d like to say a few words about the best Pittsburgh Pirate of my generation.
It was by chance that my dad had bought tickets to a Pirates game in the summer of 2009. It was the first game that I would be attending all season and I was excited to see the star of the team, Nate McLouth at the time, patrol the outfield and hopefully pull off an unlikely win. But for a young kid just entering high school, I was disappointed to learn that I wouldn’t be seeing McLouth after all, as the Pirates traded him to the Braves. But little did I know at the time that it was my lucky day. That game, the Pirates had called up Andrew McCutchen to make his major league debut. Watching that game as a 14-year-old, I was oblivious to what McCutchen would become. And I didn’t know it at the time, but a legend was being born. Everything after that is history. From the three home run game, to the spectacular diving catches in center field, all the way to leading the Pirates to their first winning season in over 20 years, Andrew McCutchen was nothing but class. He adopted the city as his own. He lived across from the Allegheny River looking onto PNC Park. He always stopped to greet fans. He became ingrained in everything that is Pittsburgh. The man even called himself a yinzer. He brought an MVP award to Pittsburgh. He brought fans to PNC Park expecting a win, not expecting a cheap baseball experience. All the fans that came to the stadium that first playoff game and chanted “CUE-TO, CUE-TO” were there because of Cutch. For a city that had lost hope that they would every see a winning baseball team again were given hope and joy by Cutch. And for that I will always be grateful. It was an absolute pleasure and my sincerest honor to watch Andrew McCutchen develop into a superstar of a player and an incredible man from that first game I saw him as a 14-year-old, to his last game in a Pirates uniform. I can only hope that one day Andrew will don black and gold again. He’s a Pittsburgh legend. He’s a Pirates legend. It’s impossible to replace that no matter what the Pirates do. And for now all I can do is thank the man that gave me the love of baseball, and specifically Pirates baseball. I hope with all my heart that Cutch can win the World Series that he absolutely deserves. I just wish he could have done it in Pittsburgh.
McCutchen Trade Return
Now, on to the specifics of the trade. For moving Cutch to San Francisco, the Pirates acquired two players, reliever Kyle Crick and OF Bryan Reynolds. Both are intriguing players but Crick will likely have the biggest impact right away. A former supplemental first round pick, Crick was expected to be a strong starter in the league after he was drafted but has suffered from, you guessed it, control issues. Those control issues have pushed Crick into the bullpen and he has thrived there. In the minors, Crick used his fastball, change-up, slider combo to generate a K/9 rate around 11 on average. Those strikeout numbers haven’t translated to the majors yet but he only has a small sample size, with only 32 innings of work. The 25-year-old has a lot of potential to be a back end reliever, similar to what the Pirates got in Michael Feliz in the the Gerrit Cole deal. With Crick, Feliz, and Rivero (who just signed a four-year $20 million extension with 2 options for $10 million) the Pirates could create the most dominate back end bullpen in baseball. The problem with Crick is going to be those control issues. He’s walking almost 4 batters per nine inning. But if he gets that fixed, he’ll be a great reliever.
Bryan Reynolds is an intriguing young prospect as well. Ranked #4 in the Giants weak farm system, an outfielder that has progressed through single-A in the San Francisco system he’s a switch hitter that is pretty solid all-around. While he doesn’t have anything that sticks out as a superstar trait, he also has no glaring weaknesses. He’s put up a slash line of .312/.363/.469 in professional ball so far and looks to make the leap to double-A this year, hopefully continuing to put up similar numbers. While he won’t drive the ball deep against higher level pitching, he should still make solid contact and the Giants liked the adjustments he made at the plate. While Reynolds won’t be a world beater, he could be an average, serviceable center fielder in the future and could possibly be an above replacement level player if he continues to make adjustments and progress through the minors.
Thoughts on Ownership and the Front Office
Another big issue that has dominated the news lately is the motivations of ownership. I like to believe that I understand and try to explain the economics of small market baseball. I understand that you need to trade your stars at a point in order to create long-term success because teams like Pittsburgh can’t afford to pay superstars market value. That makes sense and I’ve tried to explain that to other fans for years. That being said, there’s a difference between doing what needs to be done to continue success and doing what helps gain a profit. Bob Nutting has proven that he isn’t trading our team’s best players to create a sustained success, he’s doing so to lower payroll. He even said as much when asked what it would take to stop the cycle of growing stars to trade them for more prospects. Nutting’s response was that the cycle would never end and it would be impossible to have sustained success in Pittsburgh. Nutting blames the economics of baseball, which is true to an extent, but his whining also falls on deaf ears for me, fans and members of the media. The truth of the matter is, the Pirates can afford to keep some of these players. The team hasn’t had a payroll higher than $109 million in the past 20 years. Other small market teams, like the Royals for example, can fit a payroll of $130 million. Nutting could only complain about this if he wasn’t a millionaire and the Pirates weren’t profitable. The team brought in over $300 million in revenue last year, more than enough to support a payroll closer to that $130 million. Add to that the fact that teams are about to receive $50 million from the MLB for revenue sharing, with no strings attached, and Nutting refusing to add and complaining about the necessity to cut costs has no defense. And to be honest, if the Pirates are so concerned about the economics of baseball, they need to stop approving CBA’s that put them behind the eight ball. But that’s harder to do for an owner when you’re making such a sizable profit…
Another thing the Royals have been able to do that the Pirates haven’t? Capitalize on their success when it rarely appears. It could be argued that the Pirates had the best young core of players in baseball from 2013-2015. The team made three playoff appearances, won over 90 games and looked like a dark horse to win the World Series. But what did the Pirates do to improve those teams? Nothing. They decided to sign Edinson Volquez, bring back A.J. Burnett and keep the status quo. That falls on Nutting for not wanting to spend the money to add that one player that could have pushed them over the top. It also falls on Neal Huntington for refusing to part with any prospect in order to add ammunition. What did teams like the Royals do? They recognized that they only have a short window. They added Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto in 2015, helping bring Kansas City their first World Series in over 30 years. The Pirates reluctance or simple non-desire to do the same shows that they will never capitalize on any window of success that they have. If they didn’t do that in 2013-2015, they will never do it. And that calls for a change from the top down.
So I’ll leave you all with this. I desperately hope that Bob Nutting will sell the team. While he’s focused on turning a profit, Pittsburgh is focused on winning and succeeding. There are several people who have expressed interest in taking the job on. Mark Cuban has shown interest in virtually every MLB team that has been up for sale in the last decade. Thomas Tull is becoming a full-time Yinzer and has reportedly made an offer to Nutting before. With local fan’s spewing their unadulterated hatred, a petition circling to push the MLB to force Nutting to sell and national media sources starting to bash the Nutting like they used to do to Jeffrey Loria, I can only hope that the pressure becomes insurmountable. Because until Bob Nutting is no longer in charge of the Pirates, I fear that the team that we love so much will never have a winning mentality and will never be in a position to win a World Series again.