The Pirates are a perfect example of a need not for a cap but a salary floor in MLB

There are frequently good seats available at PNC Park, but is it the fault of Pirates’ fans?

It was just over a year ago, a January day in 2018 that the Pirates traded Andrew McCutchen to the San Francisco Giants, that I swore I was done being a Pirates fan. I ranted, raved and vented, and said I’d become a fan of a new team.

Eventually, I said I was going to become a fan of the Dodgers.

I did not, though. I got a lot of criticism last year for so quickly adopting the expansion Vegas Golden Knights of the NHL as my favorite team, but I’ve lived in Las Vegas for 30 years and there was so much passion and desire for a major league team in the city. Plus, I’m still a rabid fan of the Penguins. I didn’t drop the Penguins; I added the Golden Knights.

Baseball-wise, my heart remains with the Pirates, because there is no MLB team in Las Vegas and I couldn’t warm up to the Dodgers, no matter how good they were or how far they went. I’m a Pirates’ fan and I realized I couldn’t change what was in my heart just by making a post on Facebook.

Here’s the scary part, though: I didn’t watch a single Pirates’ game on TV in 2018, even though I had the Extra Innings baseball package.

It’s not that I’ve lost interest in baseball. When I see Max Scherzer throw a slider that makes the hitter miss by a foot, it sends chills down my spine. Watching Mike Trout make a spectacular catch has the same result.

I love baseball. I always have and I always will.

I was chatting with a friend about Frank Robinson’s death, and the conversation turned to the 1966 Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles won the World Series that year by sweeping the Dodgers and allowed just two runs in the four games, none after the first game.

I was 7 years old and a National League fan in 1966, but I correctly recited the Orioles’ starting lineup from 53 years ago.

The other day, talk began about rules changes to the game. Any game can be made better, but the wholesale changes they’re talking about like moving the pitching mound back and instituting a pitch clock aren’t needed.

Hey, if they add the designated hitter to the National League, or eliminate it from the American League, I’m OK with either. I don’t care for the DH, but it’s not that big of an issue.

The only thing that is an issue is payroll.

The Pirates needed a shortstop and Freddy Galvis needed a job, but a $4 million salary with a club option for $5.5 million in 2020 was apparently too much for the club.

Well, to be more precise, it’s the Pirates’ payroll. It’s going to be around $70 million in 2019 because owner Bob Nutting, as is his choice, refuses to spend more. And so the team trades its best players and ignores relatively inexpensive free agents like shortstop Freddy Galvis who would fit perfectly into their line-up because attendance dropped slightly last year. Galvis signed with Toronto for $4 million in 2019 with a $5.5 million club option for 2020.

Yeah, it dropped, Mr. Nutting. It dropped because you authorized the trade of McCutchen, one of the great players in franchise history, a guy who loved Pittsburgh and was beloved there, because you prioritized profit over winning.

Pirates fans endured 20 consecutive losing seasons from 1993 through 2012 and are in a streak in which the team finished below .500 in 22 of the last 26 years. Pittsburgh hasn’t won a playoff series since it beat the Baltimore Orioles in 1979 when Sister Sledge was singing “We Are Family!”

Andrew McCutchen is one of the most popular players in Pirates’ history.

Then, they go ahead and trade a player who is only clearly behind Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell as the most beloved in franchise history and they’re shocked when the attendance drops.

I could go on — actually, let’s go on with just one more point. The Pirates won 98 games with a $104.4 million payroll in 2015, the year they set a franchise attendance record. The fans’ reward was that the team was decimated, payroll dropped to $81.2 million and wins plummeted to 78.

Nutting is not only one of the worst owners in sports today, he’s one of the worst of all-time. That’s no secret.

He’s not going to sell the team, though, so Pirates fans must face reality. Help has to come from the outside.

And while MLB won’t force Nutting to spend more, what they should do is put a salary cap floor in. Because owners like Nutting aren’t committed in any way to winning.

It’s one thing to say that Manny Machado and Bryce Harper are too rich for your blood. If that’s the case, a team must do everything to unearth potential talent.

One of the areas many teams mine is the international prospects, who are largely from Latin American countries and who aren’t subject to the draft.

Baseball America did a preview the other days of the top prospects to be signed, and projected where they’re likely to go. The Yankees, Athletics, Rangers, Royals, Dodgers, Phillies, Cubs, Padres, Angels and Rockies were each projected to sign one.

The Pirates, you ask? Yep, you guess it: Zero.

A salary cap is the answer, of course, and it’s worked beautifully in the NFL, NBA and NHL. Teams win because of making astute moves, not because they’re richer than others. That’s how it should be in baseball.

But it doesn’t appear there will ever be a cap on salaries in baseball, and that’s fine. What is needed is a floor to force owners to spend.

If there was a $100 million floor, which at least 26 and perhaps 28 of the 30 MLB teams will hit in 2019, the Pirates would be in a commanding position to sign either Machado or Harper. And given the team’s desperate need for a shortstop, how good would Machado look in a Pirates’ uniform?

Manny Machado could sign for $30 million a year and the Pirates still wouldn’t have a $100 million payroll. Despite that, they won’t even consider making him an offer.

According to Spotrac, the Pirates are at $64.2 million in cash payroll. Reporters covering the team have projected they’ll hit $71 million. The World Series champion Boston Red Sox have $232.8 million in payroll obligations at this point. The Cubs are at $204.1 million; the Yankees at $195.2 million and the Dodgers are at $183.7. million.

You read that correctly: The Pirates’ payroll is about a quarter of the Red Sox.

OK, Boston draws better and has for years. It’s a larger market with a vastly better television deal. Boston is the seventh-largest TV market in the country; Pittsburgh is 23rd.

In terms of market size, Pittsburgh is similar to St. Louis, which is the 21st largest television market. Spotrac currently has the Cardinals with a $152.7 million payroll for 2019. Cincinnati is the 34th-largest TV market and Milwaukee is 35th, but the Reds project to have a $107.2 million payroll and the Brewers $116.9 million.

What is tough is not that the Pirates won’t win the pennant or the World Series, but that they aren’t even trying to do so. The owner isn’t giving them a chance.

I can take the losing. If we have bad management and bad scouts, that’s on us and as a fan, we have hope that a new management team comes in and brings in new scouts and the team will be competitive.

But when it has an owner who refuses to spend, who blames the fans for failing to show up despite losing season after losing season and who is almost guaranteed a profit despite the poor record, how can a fan care?

That’s why I didn’t watch one game in 2018. It was hard, because my routine is always to turn the game on in the late afternoon.

At least if there were a salary floor, fans of the Pirates and other teams similarly positioned would have some small glimmer of hope.

Nutting, though, not only won’t do anything about improving the team’s payroll, he won’t even show up to answer questions from the team’s fans on the one day they have to do so.

So if I could plead with commissioner Rob Manfred and Tony Clark, the head of the players association, it would be to put in a floor to force owners like Nutting to, you know, pretend like he cares.

It’s a long season when you know the owner’s primary concern is maximizing profitability at the expense of all else.

Josh Bell is projected to start at first base for the Pirates.


  • Oh for the days of Reuss and Rooker at the top of the rotation!

  • It has to be tough on fans who realize their favorite club doesn’t have a chance even before the start of spring training. Hope you can find some bright spots during the season!

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