A Difficult Position

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ cautious owner and limited fan appeal have reduced the team’s success.

As+a+stagnant+team+in+a+small+city%2C+the+Pirates+have+struggled+with+attendance+for+years.

Andrew McLaughlin

As a stagnant team in a small city, the Pirates have struggled with attendance for years.

Andrew McLaughlin, Staff Writer

Despite a few bright moments over the past two decades, the Pittsburgh Pirates have long had a mundane existence when compared to the city’s other professional sports teams. The Pirates’ business model is often a point of contention among fans, with many believing it is holding them back from success. Some are quick to point to Pirates management as being stingy when it comes to investing in the team’s future, but there are more factors at play than those that appear on the surface.

The Pirates finished with a losing record for all but eight seasons since 1990, damaging the team’s reputation. Following the 1992 season, the Pirates went without a winning record for 20 straight years. The playoff runs of the 2013-2015 seasons gave new hope, but the six seasons since then have been uneventful overall, despite a winning percentage in 2018. 

The Pirates’ practice of continually drafting prospects and hoping that they evolve into stars has clearly been inconsistent (though they did get lucky during the 2013-2015 seasons with this model).  To the frustration of fans, Pirates management has proved to be trigger-happy in restarting the trade-and-draft cycle, trading players at their peak ability, and betting on minor league candidates.

To maintain a successful team, players must be kept for longer than just a few seasons so that a strong mix of playing off of each other’s strengths can be found.  As a whole, how the Pirates gain and lose players is not a sustainable way to manage a team for the long term. 

The financial disparity between teams in the MLB is wider than in most other professional sports. (CNBC)

It is easy to accuse Bob Nutting, owner of the Pirates, of being responsible for this unfortunate cycle, and his management of the team has become shorthand for penny-pinching. One must remember, though, that with a smaller fanbase, the Pirates do not have the financial resources of a large-market team, meaning they generate less revenue than teams with a larger fanbase. As a result, in the absence of a sudden upswing of victories, the resources Nutting is willing to allot to the Pirates will remain limited. 

Nutting has criticized this disparity himself, making his belief heard that some teams are unfairly advantaged. The revenue difference between teams is much greater than the payroll difference; in other words, the best teams are able to pay their players more, leaving lesser teams behind.

“I think people don’t always understand the [financial] difference between baseball and the other major sports,” Nutting said to the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette.

Nutting has also argued that the current MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement causes this financial inequality, saying that it puts the Pirates at a disadvantage among other MLB teams. Due to expire in December, the agreement currently does not limit the amount players can be paid. 

Though not likely to be removed, the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s expiration has nevertheless raised the possibility of the establishment of a salary cap and floor. If not as soon as December, a cap may be installed in the future due to ever-rising costs. A salary cap would be beneficial to the Pirates, as the team would be less likely to lose well-established players to another team willing to pay them a higher salary. 

“I think people don’t always understand the [financial] difference between baseball and the other major sports.””

— Bob Nutting, Pirates owner

Referring to Nutting, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told the Baseball Writers’ Association of America that “Bob has been a consistent voice for change to promote competitive balance in the game.”

Although the Pirates owner could take a risk by investing in the team with the hope of growing the team’s popularity (and as a result, its revenue), such a sudden change is unlikely in his 15th season as the team owner. The Pirates are thus in an unfortunate cycle of disappointing performance that makes them less popular among their fan base, forcing Nutting to maintain his tight hold on the team’s spending.

Currently, Nutting is focused on long-term ways of improving the Pirates, citing the Pirates’ Dominican Republic training facility and new training methods. Additionally, as only the sixth owner of the club in 121 years, he sees himself owning the Pirates for the foreseeable future.

“I’m committed to thinking like we’re going to be here forever because that’s how we’ll make the best decisions for the club,” Nutting informed the Post-Gazette. 

With the predictable yet disappointing 2021 season over, it may seem as if the Pirates will be stuck in a rut forever. Despite the way the team is run, however, there is hope for the future. In no matter how many years it may be, one day the Pirates will once more find the playoffs within reach. It could take shifts in the way MLB is run, but no team remains in stagnation forever. The Pirates will make Pittsburgh proud again — it will just take some courage on the part of ownership to make it happen.