In light of the “Mario Lemieux wants to buy the Pirates” news and the whole Post-Gazette editorial and the resulting fallout, I think now is a good time to address some things that often slip to the backburner and that I assume people know, even though they’re not explicity stated.
There are certain realities that face small-market baseball teams that will face any owner, be he Bob Nutting, Mario Lemieux, or King Midas. The Brewers, a team held up by so many Pirate fans as the paragon of what the club should be doing payroll-wise, has managed two winning seasons with an incredibly talented young core of players and right now, they’re facing the reality of losing at least one of them and missing this window of opportunity entirely. That’s because an $80 million payroll doesn’t assure anything, and when $12.5 million of that is tied up in Jeff Suppan’s stupid contract that you gave him three years ago when payroll was low and it didn’t seem like an awful idea is suddenly a handcuff.
I could go on forever. Carl Polhad was so cheap as the Twins owner that he actually decided it would be more profitable to contract his team, but the Twins have spent the better part of the last decade winning because they’re well-run. The Mariners rolled out a $100 million payroll in 2008, but because they had asked Bill Bavasi to spend that $100 million they were awful. The Marlins are owned by Jeffrey Loria, one of baseball’s most notorious villians who choked the life out of baseball in Montreal with his own two hands, but they won a World Series during his ownership and they seem to always have one of the best young rosters in baseball. The Mets are one of the best financed teams in the league, but they’re a punchline because no one knows what to do with that money.
In 2001 and 2003, the Pirates had $54 million and $57 million opening day payrolls, good for 19th and 21st in the league, respectively. That’s fairly comparable to the two teams that everyone compares the Pirates to in terms of payroll, the Brewers and Reds, who were 16th and 19th in 2009, respectively. That little jolt of spending got the Pirates nowhere. In 2003, the team only won 75 games and in 2001, they lost 100. Their high payrolls in 2001 and 2003 got them nowhere because much of the money was spent on marginal veterans while the minor league system was largely ignored. As a result, Aramis Ramirez was shipped out of town to make payroll, and despite the increased spending the team went absolutely nowhere.
I’m not suggesting that money isn’t a factor in baseball. That would be stupid. But money is only one factor and it’s one that’s both entirely out of my hands and not nearly as cut and dried as people like to suggest. What drives me crazy about the dialogue that’s been opened since the Lemieux story broke is the assumption, be it by fans, Ron Cook, or the Post-Gazette’s editorial board, that higher payroll = more wins. It’s not that easy and it never will be that easy.
It’s not that I don’t care who the Pirates’ owner is, just that I’m not particularly interested in that aspect of the team. What I am interested in is how the Pirates operate within the parameters set by ownership. If the teams like the Marlins, Rays, and A’s, have taught us anything, it’s that a good management team is capable succeeding no matter what the set budget is. So long as the owner isn’t really a meddler (and I don’t have the impression that Bob Nutting does anything Frank Coonelly doesn’t want him to do), it’s possible even if it’s not easy. So are Huntington and Coonelly doing that? Where are they going from here? Where do I think they should go from here? This is what matters most to the future of the Pirates, and those questions don’t change, even if the owner does.