The Awfully Quiet Pirates

Twitter can be an awfully contentious place. After noting NL Central payrolls in a tweet over the weekend, I received a barrage of replies and quote tweets loudly complaining about the Pirates’ failures to invest in the team. And it’s not just folks who are mad online causing a stir. Pirates fans have spoken with their wallets as well; attendance has dwindled since the team made three straight playoff appearances earlier this decade. The Pirates have a decent team, but have done almost nothing this offseason to improve it, and seem likely to enter 2019 with payroll at it’s lowest point in the last five seasons.

PNC Park opened in Pittsburgh in 2001, and despite a 100-loss team, nearly 2.5 million fans showed up to watch the Pirates play. The team averaged 93 losses and attendance of 1.75 million fans over the next 11 seasons. After topping two million fans in 2012 — as the club approached a .500 record for the first time since Barry Bonds left for San Francisco — Pittsburgh made the playoffs each year from 2013 to 2015 and averaged 2.4 million in attendance per season. The 2016 season was a losing one, and attendance waned as the summer wore on, but positive expectations kept it at a reasonably high 2.25 million fans. Expectations were lowered in 2017; attendance dropped below two million. After trading Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, confidence in the club among fans seemed to drop to a new low as attendance dipped below 1.5 million despite a winning record.

The Pirates actually put together a decent team a year ago, but losing their two stars meant that the club’s surprising start didn’t translate in to people at the gate. At the All-Star break, Pittsburgh was averaging just 18,155 fans per game. Contention and the acquisition of Chris Archer breathed some excitement into the franchise, and in the month after the All-Star Break, the team averaged 25,357 fans per game, a two-million-plus pace over the course of the season. But as the Pirates fell out of the race, attendance plummeted again.

Last June, Pirates President Frank Coonelly acknowledged that fans had lost some of their faith in the team, faith the team would need to earn it back.

“We are genuinely focused on those great Pirates fans who are coming out to PNC Park and how much we appreciate their support,” Pirates President Frank Coonelly said in a statement responding to a request for comment. “At the same time, we appreciate that we have work to do to bring back fans who are not joining us at the park this year. Our television ratings remain in the top five in MLB, so we know that Pirates fans are following the team. We understand that we need to provide a compelling reason for all of our fans to come to the best ballpark in baseball.”

It was perhaps with those sentiments in mind that Pittsburgh pursued Chris Archer and Keone Kela, players who might have helped them if they had continued to contend in 2018, but who also could improve the club in future seasons. Given that Archer’s contract, assuming the team picks up his option years, runs through 2021 — a timeline that coincides with that of their best player, Starling Marte — it would be reasonable to assume the Pirates see a window of contention during that stretch.

This is what the Pirates have done so far this offseason:

The team has also made the typical MLB teams minor league signings; among those, Tyler Lyons is the most interesting and promising. They also let Jordy Mercer go in free agency and declined Josh Harrison’s team option, though those weren’t big losses. The issue is the lack of progress on the major league roster from a team that, as Jeff Sullivan noted earlier this week, isn’t far from a playoff spot but currently has a projected Opening Day payroll of roughly $68 million. Only the Tampa Bay Rays have a lower projected payroll at the moment. This is how Pirates payroll has progressed over the years compared to MLB averages.

The first thing we might note is that the Pirates have always been a good bit below league average when it comes to spending. Given that the team plays in a smaller market, that’s not too surprising. The most obvious complaint for Pirates’ fans is the huge downturn in 2019 payroll we see as of now despite competing in 2018, losing no significant contributors this offseason, and gaining a full season of Chris Archer and Keone Kela. But that’s not where the angst regarding the Pirates’s spending really begins. If we were to look at graphs like the ones above for teams from similarly small markets like Milwaukee, Cleveland or Kansas City, we would expect to see similar graphs. What we would actually see, though, is that when those teams became competitive, they immediately invested more money into the roster to capitalize on that excitement, and ran close to (Cleveland) or above league-average payrolls (Milwaukee and Kansas City).

It’s that failure to invest that has disillusioned fans, and created a need for the team to somehow draw them back to the ballpark. Trading for Archer and Kela was a very good start, but at this point in the offseason, it’s hard to see how much more the Pirates can do given the remaining options and their purported budget constraints. They have mostly let the offseason pass them by, leaving deficiencies in the middle infield and in their rotation depth largely unaddressed.

In the middle infield, the team has options like Adam Frazier, Kevin Newman, Kevin Kramer, and Erik Gonzalez, but in a free agent market with a glut of reasonably priced options at second base, it’s hard not to think an opportunity was missed.

In the rotation, Mitch Keller might be ready to take a spot, but further depth would have raised the floor — and potentially the ceiling — for a team still close to contention. There are still some starters out there who could help, like Wade Miley, Gio Gonzalez, and of course, Dallas Keuchel, but it is possible the Pirates missed the boat on a better fit earlier in the offseason.

The Pirates had an opportunity this offseason to continue repairing their relationship with their fans. But an approach that looked so promising at the trade deadline has left much to be desired this winter. In order to win back the fans — and potentially gain back close to a million attendees a season — the team will have to win consistently, or at least offer a reasonable expectation that they might. There are lots of teams with built-in buffers that help keep their attendance from falling too far. The Pirates are not one of those. Their quiet offseason isn’t likely to attract more fans to the park on Opening Day, and their lack of additions might also hurt them at the end of the season in the standings.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

The Pirates have been habitual under-spenders, even when comparing payroll to revenue (see link for an interactive comparison of all 30 teams payroll/revenue since 2001:, but it’s worth noting the Yankees, along with other larger market teams, have actually been spending even less on a relative basis. The focus of frugality should remain at the top, where markets are larger and revenue growth is more certain.

5 years ago
Reply to  williamnyy

Disagree- from a labor perspective, you have a point, but from a competitiveness perspective, even if the Yankees/Red Sox/Dodgers are spending less relative to the Pirates, the smaller markets’ refusal to invest means that the big dogs are still able to put out a better product and attract more veteran talent. Why should the Yankees spend more if they’re already in the pole position to land whichever FAs they want?

5 years ago
Reply to  dcweber99

If the Yankees/Red Sox/Dodgers spend less it keeps salaries down across the board, allowing smaller market teams to get away with under investing. The Yankees should spend more because they want to win (i.e., beat the Red Sox, Dodgers, Astros, etc.). Instead, they now prioritize profit margin.

5 years ago
Reply to  williamnyy

That’s a good point. I never put the two together.

Also (and I think we are seeing it big time now), when the big boys (Yankees/Dodgers/Red Sox/Cubs..etc) aren’t in on the big free agents like Harper and Machado, it really hurts every free agent player, and maybe even possible re-sign guys. The price never gets jacked up. Also Grandal making his blunder by not taking that Mets deal will probably hurt the catcher position in the future (like when JTR goes on the market).

Which, obviously we all know this, but I don’t think the magnitude of these big-market teams not spending was really truly recognized, especially this widespread.

Wonderful Terrific Monds
5 years ago
Reply to  CL1NT

No, this is looking at it quite backwards.

Teams now assess the value of all players on process/future performance; they don’t assess the value of FAs on superficially comping those players to past FA contracts. But the latter is how teams used to do it, and how many agents still do it. That is the paradigm shift that is playing out in the FA market now (and over the last few years)

The teams are like McKinsey/Bain management consultants who are actually assessing likely marginal wins in the future versus competing options (including arb and pre-arb players).

The player agents don’t do this. The player agents are glorified Century 21 real estate agents who look at past FA contracts like a real estate agent looks at similar houses that sold in the neighborhood a few years ago and then guesses at a market price, with a premium tacked on. When they shop these market prices to teams, the teams assess the actual value going forward, and think the purchase price is outrageous, and the agents’ only responses are that they got a similar price for a similar product a few years so the teams should buy it again (with a premium, because prices always go up a little). The teams just tell them no, and say that even if some team was dumb enough to buy at the inflated price years ago, the teams know better now.

The only way this will be “fixed” in the future is for the owners/players to negotiate in the CBA ways to “force” the owners to spend more on players, despite the lack of “value” to the owners in marginal wins or marginal revenues. There are lots of ways to do this, the most obvious ways being a team salary floor, expanding rosters (adding a 26th man) and/or raising the minimum ML salary.

Famous Mortimer
5 years ago

If only the agents were as smart as you!

5 years ago

I think that you are likely correct that this is how it plays out in 95% of FA cases. There are definitely cases where I don’t think this is the case. Eric Hosmer was like that last year, and I suspect that you will see similar things with Machado and Harper this year.

I liken this to the difference between a commodity and a status symbol. Most players on the market are “commodities.” They’re like a package of sliced bread, or a shirt, or a toaster. You can buy better versions of all of these, and worse versions. The worse versions usually cost less; the better versions usually cost more. They are, however, more or less fungible/replaceable. There’s an expected cost (which varies a bit across teams) and expected utility (which varies much more widely), but it’s a rational process.

But there are definitely players where the old “anchoring” method still applies. These guys are status symbols for teams, and the people who own baseball teams do often like status symbols. These guys usually give you a lot of value, but it also lets you look cool in front of your friends. Because a lot of the value is qualitative, so is the negotiation process.

Part of the reason why Boras’s clients always seem to dramatically overshoot or undershoot the expected contract is because he is firmly committed to treating his players as status symbols, not commodities. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

I suspect that the asymmetry between players and teams is not inherently because teams are more rational than agents, although that is true. It’s because teams have internalized that they can walk away from a deal if they don’t like it more than they ever have before, and players do not have that luxury. Maybe teams have more data to back this orientation up, but it was always the case that the team has an army of players to play even if they don’t have a free agent. Players can’t do that; a team can sign no free agents and still play games, but a player has to sign with a team.

Wonderful Terrific Monds
5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yes, I agree and made a comment in the Lozano article about yachts that more-or-less says the same thing.

As for your last paragraph, that is not a market “problem.” What you describe does not result in the player not having a ML job and does not preclude the player from being paid tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. It *only* results in a specific player not getting a “vanity-purchase” premium in his contract.

Again, going to the last paragraph in my comment above, such that the MLBPA was previously relying on owners’ vanity to make up for an efficient market in distributing the “right” amount of money from owners to players in the current CBA (or past ones), then the MLBPA should not rely on that silly concept anymore, and should instead design the system to force owners to transfer the “right” amount of money to players (which can be done through the tools I mentioned above).

5 years ago

I don’t really think it’s quite that simple. Teams are just much more aware that if they don’t sign a player, their world will still turn, while that’s not necessarily true for the player. That’s a pretty strong imbalance in negotiating power between management and workers, and should affect a lot of different players, some of whom were always considered “commodities” but still may be clocking in for much lower salaries than before.

I can’t say exactly what the solution should be, and your suggestions seem reasonable.

Wonderful Terrific Monds
5 years ago
Reply to  williamnyy

The obvious problem with your argument (even accepting some of your factual premises, which I don’t) is this, when sorted by Team WAR:

And when that (that the Yankees are projected to be the best team in baseball next year) is combined with the vagaries of playoff baseball, your argument that the Yankees “prioritize profit margin over winning” loses all of its force.

5 years ago
Reply to  williamnyy

“Allowing the smaller market teams to get away with under investing” or sign a superstar at a price that potentially yields relative value. The Pirates are walking a fine line and the Forbes piece last year highlighted how the franchise makes money on an operating basis and has seen the value of the franchise grow on a healthy double digit annual basis. Good for Robert Nutting and their fans are right to challenge ownership to deliver a good product and go for it when its within reach..