This might be the year for Bob Nutting and the Pirates

Rebecca Jozwiak | Staff Writer

Pittsburgh sports are known for legendary victories. The Pirates with five World Series titles, the Penguins with five Stanley Cups and the Steelers with six Super Bowl victories, tying them with the New England Patriots for the most league championships. Not to mention legendary players like Terry Bradshaw, Roberto Clemente and Mario Lemieux.

But Steel City sports, like all things, are not free of failure.

Most of those failures are products of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the past five seasons, the Pirates have a combined record of 287 wins to 421 losses. There has been opportunity for improvement – like the 2018 trade that saw Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer land with the Pirates – but Archer didn’t stick with the club for long. Archer went 3-9 with a 5.19 earned run average in his lone full year with the Pirates in 2019. He retired in 2022.

Although some players have not panned out with the Pirates, the problem lies within their front office – namely Bob Nutting. Nutting has been the owner of the Pirates since January 2007; according to CNBC, Nutting is worth $1.1 billion, while the Pirates projected payroll for the 2024 season is just over $75 million.

The Bucs payroll has striking differences from most Major League Baseball teams: Nutting’s team ranks 29th out of 30 teams in the 2024 payroll; the only team that trails Pittsburgh are the Oakland Athletics, who have a budget of $40 million per offseason. The average salary for MLB players clocks in at $4.9 million per year, according to financial estimates from Statista. Based on information provided by Spotrac, utilizing 14 available player contracts, the average yearly salary for a Pirates player is $3,959,007 per year.

Nutting has had opportunity after opportunity to utilize his massive fortune, but still opts to take cheaper routes in order to preserve the team’s money; an article written by The Athletic highlights how drastic Nutting’s penny-pinching methods have been throughout the years.

When former general manager Neal Huntington requested an $8 million renovation to the clubs spring training complex in Florida, three sources alleged that Nutting told Huntington that the finances for the project would need to come out of the baseball operations budget — which covers the salaries of players and costs for scouting opportunities.

It seems as if Nutting has his organization’s hands tied behind their back, as he let go of the team’s Double-A affiliate coach Jon Nunnally at the conclusion of the 2024 season. After having a below-average hitting percentage for nearly two seasons, third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes decided to take matters into his own hands and work with Nunnally for hitting advice. Hayes and Nunnally kept their sessions confidential; their meetings benefited Hayes, as he averaged a .318 batting average and hit 10 home runs in the span of two months — an improvement from the beginning of the 2023 season.

After the front office learned about the meetings, they were upset, Nunnally told The Athletic. He was then let go in the last week of the Pirate’s 2023 regular season.

Nutting continues to display a lack of willingness to spend money on big-name players. He also repeatedly demonstrates his inability to build off of successes that did not occur under his supervision, proven by his response to the Nunnally-Hayes situation.

Although there was potential for the Pirates to make a deep run at the playoffs after marvelous winning seasons in 2013-2015, their record has fallen extremely short of the promising era the team went through in those three years – but are times changing?

The likely answer to that question is no, but Nutting has shown promising signs of extending contracts of talented players, such as Hayes. In April 2022, Hayes signed an eight-year $70 million extension with the team. A year later, in April 2023, outfielder Bryan Reynolds signed the biggest contract in team history, extending his stay for eight years while earning $106 million. On Friday, Nutting inked 2023 All-Star Mitch Keller to a five-year, $77 million extension as well.

The extensions create a sense of leadership and responsibility between Keller, Hayes and Reynolds, and emphasizes that the trio are a core group to work around. Aroldis Chapman, fresh off a World Series Championship with the Texas Rangers, agreed to a one year, $10.6 million deal with the Pirates, giving the team an older, more experienced veteran presence.

Given that he signed Chapman and Keller to relatively expensive deals, Nutting seems to be attempting to turn a new leaf within the organization. Although Nutting has proven that he can spend money, we still do not know how these players will do in the 2024 season. So far, the Pirates are winless in three spring training games. Keller made his spring training debut on Saturday, pitching two innings and giving up one hit. The team ended up losing 2-0 to the Baltimore Orioles.

Chapman is yet to pitch for the team, but it is only a matter of time before the deals that Nutting has shelled out prove their worth. Most baseball fans say that a team’s spring training season does not reflect how they will play in the regular season – which means that the only thing we can do until Opening Day is to wait and hope that this is the year that the team dynamic will finally fall into place.