Perspectives: What the ‘Nutting Effect’ Means for the Pittsburgh Pirates

Pirates owner Bob Nutting shows no signs of changing the way he runs the ballclub, so what should fans be rooting for?

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The other day, I was reading a Deadspin article about the ongoing business struggles affecting the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes.

Before you say it: Yes, the fact that I was reading about out-of-town hockey drama does indicate that I don’t know how to spend my time.

What grabbed my attention, though, was this line about the Coyotes’ somewhat hapless owners: “Every owner should be considered a Bob Nutting until they prove they aren’t.”

Nutting is the businessman who owns such ventures as Seven Springs Mountain Resort, the Washington Observer-Reporter and — less successfully — your Pittsburgh Pirates. Around here, we certainly know that he has a reputation for … how to be delicate? Let’s say he has a somewhat stingy approach to running a big-league ballclub. In an era of high contracts and ballooning payrolls throughout Major League Baseball, the Pirates’ salaries have remained decidedly paltry.

Until seeing Nutting’s name pop up in that Deadspin story, though, I didn’t realize he had become shorthand for poor ownership. This was a story about an unrelated sport by a national outlet, written by a Chicago-based writer — and still, when making a point about troubled ownership of sports franchises, the default name that came to mind was Nutting.

This week, the Pirates take the field for Spring Training in Bradenton after a 2020 campaign featuring the worst record in the big leagues — and an offseason spent peddling the team’s most marketable players for seeds to plant in the team’s farm system. The team’s intent is clearly not to field a competitive team in 2021. In a vacuum, that’s not a crime; every franchise goes through rebuilding cycles.

The trouble with the Bucs, to state an overly obvious case, is that there’s a very itchy finger hovering over the reset button. Under Nutting’s ownership, the team has never waited until all avenues are exhausted before starting from scratch; the parts are sold off any time there’s a sign of trouble.

If the team were a car, Bob Nutting would never take it in for repairs; he’d simply junk it every time a light came on, hoping that the next vehicle would be the one that never breaks down.

Here’s the thing, though: He’s not going to change. Short of some type of Dickensian three-ghosts scenario, there will never be a day when Bob Nutting decides to spend every penny of his winter-sports fortune in an attempt to deliver a championship to the city. No matter what happens, he remains committed to a cheap, ground-up approach; draft and trade for prospects and hope enough of them work out at the same time to compete.

Can that approach work? Sort of.

If we define “working” as fielding a team that makes a solid playoff run, it happened for a few years in the early ’10s; with a few different bounces of the ball, the Pirates would’ve made it to the NLCS at least one of those years.

We’ve got a decent enough sample size now to conclude that, via this type of ownership, you can expect a solid playoff run (but probably not a championship) once every quarter-century.

I hope that’s enough for you as a fan, because — right now — it’s not reasonable to expect anything more. And, much to the dismay of the Bucco faithful, there’s not actually any way for a fanbase to exert much pressure on an owner to sell a team.

So what are we rooting for? (Besides whoever we bet on in the pierogi race?) A fundamental change to the playing field. It’s too complicated for me to get into here (or, truthfully, for me to fully understand), but the relationship between the Major League Baseball Players’ Association and the team owners is fraught at the moment. There could be some big changes coming — and, theoretically, they could involve a change to the way teams are required to spend money.

There might be some competitive-balance changes — probably not a salary cap or, in the Pirates’ case, a salary floor, but some changes — on the horizon. Players are motivated to address the tendency of teams (not naming any names, here) to fail to field a competitive team.

Whether such measures are best for the game are matters for a more informed analyst. But I know this: If you’re a Pirates fan, you want things to change. Because there’s not going to be any movement in the way this club is run if Nutting has a choice.

Unless he’s visited by three ghosts one Christmas Eve.

Categories: Perspectives