Wednesday, September 09, 2009

#131: City of Record Setters

---Seventeen Candles---

Consider this my final post regarding the Pittsburgh Pirates until the season actually ends.

Something catastrophic would have to happen for it to be otherwise.

In a strangely-inverted comparison to the NFL's most Lombardi Trophied franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers, its older brother, the Pirate organization, is now the franchise with the longest losing-season streak in all of North American professional sports.

Friends (to channel Lanny Frattere), this is not the end. This is the beginning.

I noted in June that, for a couple of years, the question hasn't been "Will the Pirates end the streak before it's too late?". It is "What will be the final number when it does end?"

The Pirates are falling at terminal velocity, and, while there's a parachute on their collective backs, there is no ripcord. That's because ownership has no intention of trying to build a winner at the expense of its profit.

Suppose Pittsburgh would finish 81-81 or better some not-so-distant season from now. I can assure you that it wouldn't be because of ownership. It would be in spite of ownership.

In another oddly-jilted comparison, it's like the Steelers winning Super Bowl XLIII in spite of having a marginal offensive line.

It's true that Andrew McCutchen is exciting to watch. Garrett Jones is a nice story. The potential of a healthy Charlie Morton, a more experienced Daniel McCutchen, and the already noteworthy performance of Ross Ohlendorf in his first full year as a starter is intriguing heading into 2010.

Still, if you really want to be able to tell if management is truly ready to build a winner, these are the seven signs of the anti-apocalypse:

1) The Pirate payroll will leave the bottom five.

What I've been able to discern is that the current revenue sharing system started pretty much at the conclusion of the 2002 season. From 2003 and on, the Pirates have not been higher than fourth-lowest on the payroll totem pole. Also, from my understanding, it's the bottom-five teams that are either the greatest or the only teams that benefit from the luxury tax. (I welcome any comments to correct these).

Since the Pirates reportedly made $27 million dollars of the revenue sharing this year alone, they have no reason to spend any more than they already are.

Enjoy this website, while you're at it.

2) A high-impact player will be re-signed when his contract expires.

While good business sense will tell someone that resigning a player to an extension when you have a good feeling that he's about to have a breakout year where you can lock him up much more cheaply, you have to watch what they do when a player has his breakout year when his contract is almost up. That player, having languished in Pittsburgh for a while, is going to want to bolt for a place where he has a chance. Only by showing that they're serious about keeping core guys together and paying a fair price will the front office be able to keep top players in the fold. This will also aid #1.

3) The Pirates stop being sellers at the trade deadline.

For the past couple of years, Pirate management has said that they're not winning with they players they have now, so they're going to trade for the prospects they can get. In all likelihood, the five-year rebuilding plan will not be accelerated. If the players they deal at the deadline are more superfluous (due to minor league depth), that won't count. But if it's a player like Andrew McCutchen or a prospect like Pedro Alvarez - in other words, players whom this "contender" must be built around to realistically stay within a five-year frame (now three-and-a-half years) - you're being had. A year or two of holding the fort, let alone becoming buyers, will be a good sign.

4) The Pirates acquire a couple of solid free agents.

I'm not saying "go nuts" and spend for an Evan Longoria (who will be a Ray for the next 7 years or so before he become a Yankee) if/when he becomes a free agent, but see that there's a quality first-basemen either entering his prime or juuuust past it (not 10 years ago) and a pitcher or two with a WHIP below 1.33 over the last couple of seasons with a good K/BB ratio. Let's face it: no team contends by just building through its farm system. The Phillies built mostly within, but set themselves up with some offseason acquisitions in the couple of years leading up to their championship.

5) The promotional focus shifts to the team itself.

It's not even really a joke anymore to talk about going to Pirate games for bobbleheads, fireworks, all-you-can-eat seats and the "family atmosphere". The TV, radio, and newspaper ads that don't address those things will focus more on Pittsburgh's proud history - the 30th anniversary of the 1979 World Series and the like - or how excited a young player is to have made it to the bigs - "I'm so-and-so, and I am a Pirate". They need to go back to things like, "Burgh Ball 2! This time, it's war!" (I can't believe good ol' YouTube doesn't have one of those old commercials on there)

6) The Pittsburgh media becomes truly critical of the team.

It's not even really a joke anymore to listen to the radio postgame shows on the Pirates flagship station and hearing the eternal optimism...not just of the hosts, but of the numerous callers. I swear they must be screened, because no one ever calls out the ownership, at least not more than a little grumble about "they just need to spend a little more money."

I heard tell that the most famous sports talk show host in the market was actually encouraging people to go support the Pirates at PNC Park. It was a true deviation from the days when he was with another network.

Then you follow the trail. Clear Channel Communications owns the Pirate flagship. They also own this particular talk show host's station. No coincidence.

7) The internal ass-kissing stops.

Chairman Bob Nutting (afterward referred to as "Chairman Bob"), after he thought they had beaten baseball's super-agent Scott Boras in the war for Pedro Alvarez, said, "This is the single-best management team in all of baseball, maybe all of sports."

Then, it turns out, that Boras still had an ace up his sleeve and made the best management team in baseball look like a bunch of fools.

This is the stage in which they need to conduct their business with the team in very much the same way they've conducted their business with the fans. Very sneakily, not gloating over their yearly financial victories.


Until at least some of these items start becoming evident, the true Pirates will be in the front office, not on the field.

(Final thought - Do you think this Pirate team will be able to win 9 of its final 24 and escape the dreaded 100-loss campaign? It's going to be close...)


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