Reading yesterday’s excellent interview with Bob Nutting in the PG and watching some of the reaction to it in various places around the internet really got me thinking about Nutting’s tenure as owner of the Pirates so far. It’s more or less been three years since Nutting officially took control from Kevin McClatchy as the team’s primary ownership. With Nutting’s propensity to make declarative statements around this time of year, I thought it would be a good time to go back and look at some of the things he’s said and evaluate just how things have played out in relation to those statements so far.
Let’s start with Nutting’s letter to the fans, which was published all over the place after he took over in January of 2007. I’ll break them down FJM style, with Nutting’s statements in bold and my responses underneath.
I believe there is absolutely nothing more important than for our team to be able to win, not just for one year, but on a consistent basis. I am committed to providing Kevin and General Manager Dave Littlefield the greatest amount of support possible to accomplish that. Our fans deserve it, our community deserves it and I expect it.
This is the first time in the letter that he outlies part of his vision for the franchise and then gives his support to McClatchy and Littlefield in pursuit of that vision. In January of 2007, the Pirates were nowhere near being able to contend on a consistent basis. In September of the same year, McClatchy and Littlefield were both gone.
In order to consistently succeed on the field, it’s critical that we spend our resources effectively, while continuing to build our team from within. This is the plan I firmly believe in. It is one that Dave was brought here to develop and execute, one that he and Kevin are accountable for and one that I have confidence is working.
And this is the second time it happens. The Pirates as they existed in 2007 were terrible at both spending resources effectively (hello, Matt Morris!) and building from within. Nutting said that Dave and Kevin would be accountable for that, and they indeed were held accountible.
I am energized about our core group of exciting, young, talented players. We have one of the youngest teams in all of baseball and now will be able to keep them together for several years.
This is a statement that I suppose a lot of people would view as a broken promise on Nutting’s part since his core of “exciting, young, talented players” that he said they’d be able to keep together has been almost uniformly traded. But remember that Nutting has never pretended to be involved in the day-to-day baseball operations and would have, at the time, deferred to McClatchy on this assessment. What was McClatchy supposed to tell him? “Uh, truth is boss, we’re kinda boned here. I mean, we got some decent players under control ’til about 2009, but we’re really going to be lucky to win 81 games even once with this group. Dunno what else to tell you.” When he changed his baseball operations crew, the way the players were evaluted changed.
If you’re a longtime reader here, you may recall I wrote a response to Nutting. In that response, I asked for Dave Littlefield and his front office to be fired and for Nutting to spend more money on the team, if not in the on-field product than through things like player development and international scouting. Since I really have no problem with the club not raising payroll yet, I’m happy with the progress made on my requests from that day.
Let’s fast-forward now to August 2008. In the aftermath of the Pirates’ signing of Pedro Alvarez, Bob Nutting says this:
It’s the single best management team in all of baseball, maybe in all of sports. And everyone, including Greg and his staff, showed that with what they just accomplished.
The reason I’m mentioning this quote is because of how different it is from his comments about McClatchy and Littlefield when he took over the job the year before. Given that he stood by those comments in the interview of the weekend, I think it paints a good picture of how much trust he has in Coonelly and Huntington’s vision for the team. And also that he speaks in hyperbole from time to time.
Now let’s jump ahead to around this time last year. With Coonelly and Huntington firmly in place, Nutting sat down with Dejan Kovacevic at Seven Springs and discussed his goals for 2009.
There’s no question that my expectation in 2009 is that we have a better team than we did last year. Even as we continue to build for the long-term success of the franchise, a real, championship-caliber organization that can compete on a sustainable basis, we have to have a better team in 2009 and better than what Pittsburgh has seen lately.
After this, he’s asked if he’d consider players making strides but the team winning fewer games as an improvement.
“No. That would be a very disappointing year. As an organization, we have to continue to hold people accountable for improvement on the field at the major league level, as well as organization-wide. You saw it last year with Matt Morris. We’re not going to accept an inferior performance.”
I think this statement inspired (or at least reaffirmed) a lot of the distrust in Nutting and it’s easy to see why; the Pirates had a terrible year in 2009 and mostly everyone is right back in the same place they where when Nutting made this statement. But I also think that everyone should remember that Nutting made these statements at the freaking kickoff event to the Pirates’ Caravan. What exactly is he supposed to say when asked about the team’s prospects for the coming season? “Uh, to be honest there’s no one on this team that we won’t consider trading and we’re probably not gonna win a lot of games in 2009. But you should all buy tickets because we’re going to spend more money on the draft! And you’ll never believe this, but we’re going to trade Nyjer Morgan for Lastings Milledge and some of you guys are gonna be piiiiissed.” He’s the owner. He can’t say that. Should he have choosen his words more carefully? Sure. But he’s got to do something to get people to show up.
Look, I’m not here to apologize for Bob Nutting. I want the Pirates to be a good team at least as much as the next guy and I’ll admit that I’m not going to be sold on his promise to raise payroll as necessary until it happens. But he did outline his goals for this team from Day 1 (build from within to be competitive for not one year, but every year) and as far as I can see, we’re making progress towards those goals. I know that some people won’t see progress until the wins start coming on the field and I understand that. I also understand that until the wins do show up, nothing should be taken for granted. But I also don’t see anything that Nutting’s done that’s contrary to what he said he’d do when he took over as the principle owner three years ago.
It’s possible that because the earliest stages of this sort of rebuild involves slashing payroll, Nutting’s more than happy to stand behind his management team and that he’ll never fund the second, more expensive part of the process that involves keeping young talent and bringing in free agents to fill gaps. But if all he were interested in was the bottom line, he’d be much better served to have a management team like the one he fired eight months into his official ownership. The money the Pirates have spent on the draft, international signings, and additional expenditures like the new Dominican Academy would be much better served signing veteran stopgaps to appease casual fans. The path the Pirates are on gambles that losing fans in the short-term will create a product that will bring them back over time. I don’t think it’s a risk they would be taking unless everyone from Nutting down to the assistant to Neal Huntington’s assistants were committed to it.