Pittsburgh, PA

Do The Pittsburgh Pirates Have A Plan?

Today, we look at the status of the Pirates franchise and ponder the likelihood that they find fair winds or sail through more rough watersPhoto bycreative commons 2.0

By Daniel R. Epstein

There is a substantial disconnect between the romanticized fairy-tale swashbucklers of Robert Louis Stephenson and J.M. Barrie and the reality of actual piracy in the colonial Americas. They didn’t say, “ARRR,” rarely buried their treasure, and usually got captured and executed. Instead of charming antiheroes, they were mostly just amoral jerks with terrible hygiene.

Rather than behaving like the Captain Jack Sparrow of MLB, their baseball namesakes are similarly disappointing and unworthy of their storied past. They have finished with a sub-.400 winning percentage in each of the past three years and have never won the NL Central since the division’s inception in 1994. Other than a brief reprieve during Andrew McCutchen’s peak, it’s almost impossible for an MLB team to be so bad for so long, yet here they are.

To claw themselves back to respectability, the Pirates must either build around however much young talent they have or trade for prospects to build up toward a winning ballclub in the near future. Enter Bryan Reynolds, their switch-hitting center fielder who has a career .281/.361/.481 slash line, a 126 wRC+, and three more years before free agency. Dissatisfied with playing for a losing, rudderless franchise, he requested a trade earlier this offseason. It’s essentially an ultimatum, daring the team to build a winning club either with him as the centerpiece or by sending him away for a handsome return of prospects.

Of course, Pittsburgh probably will do neither. Rival clubs engaging the Pirates in trade discussions for Reynolds have said their ask is “unrealistic.” At the same time, the club reportedly lowballed him with a six-year, $75 million extension offer. The mental gymnastics required to justify a king’s ransom in prospects while submitting a far-below-market-value extension offer to the same player behooves a feckless, sordid pawnbroker of a franchise. They seem content to let him overripen on the vine until he eventually escapes as a free agent.

Reynolds isn’t the only prominent Pirate the team can either build around or bring to market. Starting pitcher Mitch Keller compiled a solid season with a 3.91 ERA over 159 innings with a 49% groundball rate. He is on pace to reach free agency in the same season as Reynolds. Reliever David Bednar featured an outstanding 32.9% strikeout rate last year. Either pitcher would be a desirable trade chip, but instead, the team would rather let them toil on a 62-100 roster.

There are a few young players worth building around. Shortstop Oneil Cruz has one of the most impressive highlight reels in the game (and some of the cringiest lowlights). Ke’Bryan Hayes is a truly elite defensive third baseman and has already signed an extension through at least 2029. They’ve made a lot of very high recent draft picks in the last few years, so prospects Henry Davis (catcher) and Nick Gonzales (infielder) should be arriving soon. Pitcher Luis Ortiz and shortstop Liover Peguero have already debuted for the Pirates, and catcher Endy Rodriguez isn’t far behind. With a few savvy trades, successful player development, and well-timed free-agent investments, they could have an eye toward competing (finally) in a year or two.

Ah, but there’s the rub— no one has faith that owner Bob Nutting will shell out for those free agents to supplement the roster when their youngsters mature. The club was worth $274 million when he bought it in 2007 and is now valued at $1.32 billion— a 482% increase. His personal net worth was estimated to be $1.3 billion in 2019. The Pirates’ estimated 2021 revenue was $258 million, yet their 2022 Opening Day payroll was only $56 million. Their projected $65.4 million 2023 payroll is the third-lowest in MLB.

Owning an MLB team is an immensely profitable venture. By repressing payroll, Nutting selfishly inflates his own wealth at the expense of the city and the fanbase while contributing nothing of value to society. His franchise appears to have no plan other than to develop future free agents for the rest of baseball while he pillages revenue streams for his own personal gain. Perhaps Nutting is a true pirate after all.

Daniel R. Epstein serves as Co-Director of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. He writes for Baseball Prospectus and Off the Bench Baseball.

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