Baseball

It sounds funny now when you say the Cubs along with the Astros are something of the “model” teams are using to justify total tear-downs and rebuilds of their teams. But that’s still the case, though for how much longer one wonders. And the Cubs might not be the model anymore. The other thing is that it’s not going to work out as well even as it did for the Cubs. Look at the Phillies, who tried it and seem stuck in the middle forever. Not everyone gets the parade. And of course, the whole process can be used to cover up what is actually a simple “Producers” like tank to just cash checks.

The Pirates might be the prime example. This is an embarrassing end to the season for a team that just was never good enough because its management never tried to make it anything else. The cover story for them is that they’re still rebuilding from the ’14-’17 run, such as it was.

But did that really have to be? The Pirates watched the Cubs zoom past them, pinpointed by the wildcard game that Jake Arrieta and Kyle Schwarber essentially took from them. But over 162 games, those teams were exactly the same. Did they have to just watch instead of run with? They let Charlie Morton and AJ Burnett go their way, but they still had Jameson Taillon waiting and Tyler Glasnow not too far behind. But they added nothing to the lineup, and were caught standing still when everyone else was ready to move forward. It wasn’t attendance’s fault, as they drew three million fans the previous season.

No, what happened was ownership saw that it would take more money to keep up with the Cubs (and eventually Brewers and now Cardinals), and decided that it wasn’t worth it to them. Thanks to BAMTECH and other factors, they still get their money. So the Pirates of the middle of the decade were allowed to yellow, and that became a justification for trading Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen for essentially role players but no future stars.

The Pirates will claim that they’re remaking for a run in the next year or two, but what they’re really doing is just treading water and raking in the cash every MLB team gets before they even have to worry about gates and local television and the like. It’s a cover of a rebuild, but it’s hardly that.

There isn’t a team in MLB now that can’t afford to build a winner. The only team that might have that claim is Tampa, and they seem to come up with a contender every year anyway. But thanks to some teams that have found success going to the bottom to rise again, any team can use that as a life preserver when all they’re really doing is cutting costs. You’ve seen it in free agency the past two winters.

Until there’s a reason not to, this is the cycle the Bucs will stay in. Sure, maybe their system can produce a couple more players and Taillon comes back healthy one day and Musgrove really pops. And maybe they spasm a 92-win season or two. But as soon as that needs to be built upon and the foundations need to be paid, they’ll sink back into this, claiming a rebuild was necessary. It won’t be, but it’ll be profitable. Every team now can reach for “Springtime for Hitler.” The Pirates are just the best example.

Baseball

Everyone knew that when the Pirates were flirting with the top of the division at the beginning portion of the season it was something of an illusion. Even with a healthy Jameson Taillon, and health elsewhere, this was based on Josh Bell’s freak-onomics at the plate and some other blind, dumb, idiot luck. What no one could have expected is that the market correction would be so harsh, so violent, and so complete.

The Pirates have gone 11-27 since July 1. They’ve lost 18 of 22 at one point. They have losing streaks of eight and nine games just in the past three weeks. They have the second-worst record in the National League, with only the we-don’t-even-try Marlins propping them up.

And what’s it’s done is expose rifts, stupidity, and simply indifference at the playing, managerial, front office, and ownership levels. This is a fine mess, and maybe something a real commissioner might feel tempted to do something about. But we’ll get back to that in a minute.

Just today, The Athletic in Pittsburgh broke a story about how the Bucs have had to suspend two pitchers and one coach for insubordination. This follows their actual brawl with the Reds, caused by the Pirates either encouragement of pitchers throwing at hitters’s heads or their inability to get them to stop, or an unwillingness or lack of motivation to even try. Pitchers and players have openly balked at the Pirates still cutter-heavy teachings and shift-heavy ways, even though they’re one of the worst ground-ball producing pitching staffs in the majors.

Secondly, you can’t lose that many games in that big of a bunch without some players quitting. And yet there’s been little mention of Clint Hurdle being fired, even though he’s got open insubordination and a team that doesn’t seem to care. This runs through the Pirates organization as a whole, as when owner Bob Nutting is reminded he actually owns a baseball team he’s shown loyalty over anything else, though that could just be indifference or laziness to not even wanting to bother.

The Pirates have been unlucky with injuries, as Taillon is headed for a second Tommy John surgery, and the pen can’t seem to keep anyone upright for very long either. But that doesn’t explain it all.

The dysfunction flows upward. Neal Huntington, the GM, doesn’t seem to have worry about his job status much either, and in the interest of fairness he does have his hands tied by strict payroll limits from his owner. Still, this was a team that tried to force Gerrit Cole into their very limited view of how pitchers should work, and then sold low on him to Houston and watched him become perhaps the most dominant starter in the American League. And all that was a result of the Astros just letting him be what he wants. Michael Feliz, Colin Moran, and Joe Musgrove either are or could be nice pieces, but none are defining a team.

But Huntington has always struggled to know what he has. Only Bell has come through the system to be a star under his watch, and that was only this year. Gregory Polanco has flattered to deceive, Taillon is hurt, and he gave up on Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows way early to bring in the husk of Chris Archer. Sure, Glasnow has the same injury problems as Taillon, but Meadows has been a borderline star, and in the outfield where the Pirates are currently sporting Melky Cabrera. And if you’re sporting Melky Cabrera in 2019, you suck. This list could go on.

But the rot starts at the head, and that’s Nutting. There’s no better example of a MLB owner just pocketing his BAMTECH and revenue sharing money and leaving the team he owns to flounder and turn weird colors, but still produce a profit. The Pirates drew over two million fans for five years running, covering both ends of their three wildcard berths stretch. But do you remember the Bucs ever adding to those teams in an ambitious way with a free agent pitcher or hitter they desperately needed to stick with the Cubs and now Brewers? Hey, the Brewers have swung trades for Christian Yelich and signed Lorenzo Cain and Yasmani Grandal, and they’re the same sized market as Pittsburgh or thereabouts (at least in baseball terms, Milwaukee has nearly twice the population).

Nutting rarely talks to the press, and is heavily guarded when he does. So we have no idea what he thinks. Yet being in Pittsburgh doesn’t seem to hold the Penguins or Steelers back much, even if they exist in leagues with salary caps.

The Pirates have been caught and passed on the field with their once-forward-looking methods, and don’t do much about it. Their front office seems helpless to add anything with the budget they have or to rightly evaluate what’s around. Their owner doesn’t seem to care. It’s rotten in The Iron City.

 

Baseball

There are few, if any, organizations that are a prime example of how you can fuck up a great team and feel no pressure like the Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s been five seasons since they won 98 games and got Arrieta’d, and not a lot has gone right since. The past couple years have been particularly astounding, and sending Pirates fans on their way in droves. But what does it matter when Bob Nutting can still pocket revenue sharing and BAM tech money and make a huge profit?

The Pirates started last season by moving along team legend Andrew McCutchen because he was a year from free agency, and if that wasn’t bad enough (it was), they also shipped off ace Gerrit Cole because he was two years from the market. We could study how the Bucs mishandled Cole forever, trying to shoehorn him into their cutter-ground ball ways and then watching the Astros unleash a monster by letting him simply be him and chuck 97 MPH all the time.

The Pirates, in the midst of a surprise above .500 season, tried to make up for that by shipping out perennial disappointment Austin Meadows and seemingly perennially wayward Tyler Glasnow for Chris Archer. Let’s be fair to Archer, he was never as good as Cole and to expect him to be was silly. And it’s not Archer’s fault that Meadows has gone on to be a plus-plus outfielder in Tampa while Glasnow was one of the best starters in the AL before getting hurt. That’s on the Pirates. But Archer is going to be the target.

The warning signs were there on Archer before, of course. Even in his good days, 2014-2018, Archer was a two-pitch pitcher. He threw only a fastball and slider, though both being weapons were more than enough for then. But the thought was as soon as either slipped, he was going to have problems. And so it has proven.

Archer’s fastball has lost a full MPH on it this season, though you wouldn’t think averaging 94 MPH instead of 95 would be a major issue. But it has been. He’s seen a 100-point rise in slugging on his fastball, to .562 this year.

Velocity hasn’t been the problem for Archer’s slider, and he still gets over 40% whiffs on the swings on it which is very good. But it has lost some of its tilt, and has more of a sweeping action these days than it did. Which means it’s been a little easier to get in the air, and Archer has seen that increase too. And these days, if you’re giving up more fly balls, you’re asking for trouble. You’re asking for death.

Archer’s home runs per nine innings have nearly doubled this season, though it’s hardly his fault that pitchers are using Titleists out there this season. Archer’s fly ball rate is the highest of his career, which normally wouldn’t be a big problem in PNC Park, but his home run per fly ball is miles above anything that’s been seen before.

Archer has tried to make up for it by introducing a change-up this season. It’s had mixed results. He does get a lot of grounders off it, which is key. He’s getting 28% whiffs-per-swing, which is definitely something to build on. He’s still giving up too much slugging on it (.500), but as this is the first year he’s tried it it’s at least a start.

Of course, the main concern for Nutting’s Pirates is affordability, and Archer is still that. He’s got a team-option of $9M next year and $11M the following, which is nothing for even a 5th starter. And with Cole hitting the open market after this season, he’ll probably pull in three times that or more. For the Bucs, that’s what matters. Shame, that.