BRADENTON, Florida (93-7 THE FAN) – Just five days ago, Josh Harrison, the most tenured Pirate, reiterated his belief that the team’s front office would have to show that they want to win with actions, not just with words.
Today, the team’s chairman and principal owner, Bob Nutting, agreed that actions speak louder than words.
But he put the onus for success back on the players.
“What we need to do this year is to earn those fans’ trust by performing on the field,” said Nutting in response to a question of how fan anger has caused reflection on ways the organization can do things differently. “We need to earn the support as we perform and as we go forward.”
“We’re going to be in a position in April and May where our actions on the field are going to have speak louder than my words today,” he said.
Nutting addressed the media for close to 40 minutes on a range of issues that bring together the one central theme that has tied together fans’ resentment, players’ frustration, and a confusion among many as to what the team’s ultimate goal is: Is their main priority winning? And if so, why trade their two best players this off-season?
“I really don’t think it’s a conflicting message,” said Nutting. “I think everything [General Manager] Neal [Huntington] did this off-season was built to make the team stronger.”
That includes trading Andrew McCutchen.
“It was an agonizing decision. It was a brutally challenging discussion,” said Nutting of trading the face of the franchise.
“What brought me around was the deep absolute conviction by the entire baseball operations team, from [Team president] Frank [Coonelly], from Neal, from [Manager] Clint [Hurdle], from the analytics team, that it was the right thing to do to make this team better as we go forward.”
Nutting continues to stand stalwartly behind his front office though, and believes in their direction.
“I think we made a clear directional shift this off-season. We clearly said 75 wins is not good enough,” insisted Nutting.
“[We] clearly said we need to move forward in a direction where we’re going to build a stronger team. We clearly said we’re going to need to go younger to be able to bring that energy and talent in to the club.”
However, Nutting doesn’t believe that what’s happening is a teardown, a fire sale, or any other kind of ‘tank.’
“We also clearly said that it’s not a 5-year rebuild. We are closer. We have too much talent,” said Nutting.
“I don’t think we’re in a position where we need to pull back for three years and go through the process that the Astros or the Cubs went through. Far more importantly, Neal and Frank, our leadership team, our coaching staff, do not believe that is true.
“But again, I think that’s something that performance on the field,” Nutting was careful to stop short of blaming the players’ performance, and pivoted instead to the culture in the locker room, which is part of what drew David Freese’s ire when he reported to Pirate City a week ago.
“Part of the reason [we’re] focusing so much on driving the culture in the clubhouse. [It’s] critically important for us to take a serious look at and take a changed approach to this year. … What’s been really important here over the last couple days, what’s been important over the offseason, is seeing the coaching staff, the leadership team, and I believe the players, more and more embracing that. Getting ready [for] some of the young leaders to step up.”
So if Nutting believes that his management team is doing things that right way, and the players will be led in a more focused manner this year, and their ‘culture’ in the clubhouse will be better, where does the owner’s willingness to add to payroll fall on the spectrum of responsibility?
“We need to put ourselves in a position to produce winning baseball in Pittsburgh,” said Nutting. “There certainly are lots of models that have produced. I think there are lots of models to build aggressive winning baseball teams, and that’s what we’re focused on.”
Could that include spending the approximately $50 million every MLB team is receiving this spring due to the sale of BAMTech, the technology developed by Major League Baseball to produce high quality streaming of live events?
“We need to make sure that we’re focused on taking a one-time chunk of capital and return on investment, and find ways to use that effectively to build [a] long term future for the club”
But when pressed for the specifics of how the money would be utilized, Nutting maintained no clear plan existed yet.
“I’ve always looked at the baseball operations as a broad bucket. Neal Huntington has a lot of flexibility. [In the past] he’s allocated between major league payroll – which is a very important piece of his budget, but a piece of his budget – whether it’s international [signings], whether it’s the draft, facilities, resources, we need to look across that entire platform to make sure that we’re driving performance for the team.”
Criticized for not going ‘all-in’ by adding payroll when necessary, Nutting indicated that 2016’s $100 million Opening Day payroll after winning 98 games in 2015, and past focus on paying over slot for talent in the draft were what amounted to going ‘all-in’ for this organization.
“Do we look back? … At what’s been successful? And be opportunistic as we adjust? Absolutely. We’ve done that several times throughout the last decade. As we rotated from an intent focus on bringing talent in through the Amateur Draft when there was a unique opportunity… we found that opportunity and put a foot on the gas and went full bore.”
Still, don’t expect the Pirates to either tear down to the studs or spend more than the majority of teams in baseball. They will continue to exist in the middle, regardless of extreme approaches working in other places.
“Other teams have been successful. At this point we’re not going to focus on other successful models. I think we have a path that can be successful in Pittsburgh.”
Yet, the limitation of being in one of the smaller markets in Major League Baseball, and the current CBA, are a set of rules Nutting has no interest in using as an excuse, despite how they may hamstring his organization.
“We need to work as hard as we can to make sure that the system is as advantageous to Pittsburgh as possible. Flat out. We need to do that.”
“By the same token,” said Nutting, “we will not, have not, cannot allow the system to become even a glimmer of an excuse inside the organization – and I’m never going to use it as an excuse. Because if we don’t have faith that we can compete in the existing system, we shouldn’t be playing the game.”
Nutting is convinced the philosophy he and his front office have in place will lead them back to the postseason. He just wants the players to live up to what he believes they are capable of.
“I believe that the players have been, and will respond well. It seems to me that the level of optimism, enthusiasm, cohesion, is pretty high out there. [I] see a lot of people working hard. I see David Freese standing with Colin Moran, they’re working hard together. I think that’s a great sign. That’s moving in the right direction.”
Despite two years of losing, an off-season of shedding stars, a first week of Spring Training that drew critical words from the clubhouse, and a declining payroll, Nutting has decided to turn the adage of ‘actions speak louder than words’ back on to the players.