Pirates’ Bob Nutting says criticism fair, but team needs winning culture
BRADENTON, Fla. — Pirates owner Bob Nutting called the clubhouse criticism of the organization from veteran players “correct and fair.”
Nutting added he “absolutely” believes the team can win with one of MLB’s lowest payrolls — if the players build a championship culture.
“What we need to focus on are the opportunities to optimize our chances to win,” Nutting said Thursday in a 40-minute interview. “What’s been really important here over the last couple of 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. That’s what’s going to drive wins in Pittsburgh.”
Nutting touched on a number of topics, from regaining Pirates fans’ trust after trading Andrew McCutchen to continuing the same business model that led to three consecutive playoff appearances from 2013-15.
The trades of ace pitcher Gerrit Cole to the World Series champion Houston Astros and McCutchen to the San Francisco Giants in a 48-hour window last month brought critical comments from third baseman David Freese and second baseman Josh Harrison last week about top-to-bottom disconnect.
Nutting responded by saying the Pirates need to “make sure that we have the right tone in the clubhouse, that they’re focused on the right work.”
It also brought backlash from Pirates fans, as more than 60,400 have signed a petition for MLB to force him to sell the team.
“I think the two pieces of that really are I really do try to listen to and respect and appreciate the fans and the anger and the concern,” Nutting said. “Never want to minimize that. I want to honor it, but I want to honor it by doing what we think is best to bring performance onto the field in Pittsburgh. I deeply believe that we are taking the effective steps to move us toward … a winning culture, winning talent and a winning team in Pittsburgh. That’s our sole focus. The way we can honor those fans’ anger and concern is by performing.”
That’s why Nutting made it a point to be more vocal and visible for the first week of full-squad workouts at Pirate City.
Nutting said he believes the Pirates can contend. He cited the NL Central Division rival Milwaukee Brewers, who won 86 games last season as an example of a successful small-market team despite having the lowest payroll (nearly $83.5 million) in the majors.
“If you look at the culture that we had in ’13, ’14, ’15, we weren’t focused on external challenges. We weren’t focused on payroll issues,” Nutting said. “We were focused on how we go out every day and win baseball games. You look at what the Brewers were doing last year. They were focused on young, exciting team that was out very aggressively winning baseball games. I think you have a young group of players that have a lot that they want to prove and a lot that they can show to the fans in Pittsburgh.”
Nutting, however, challenged the contention that spending in the free-agent market would show his seriousness about winning.
“I think that’s been proven, time and time again, not to be the way to drive a winning culture and a winning team, throwing in a piece,” Nutting said. “Will we continue to look to make the team better? Yes. Will we be opportunistic, and is (general manager) Neal Huntington charged to find ways to identify and fill holes? Yes, absolutely. But can we veer from the path? I think that’s when a directionless team really is a doomed team. A team that is pulling together, a team that is working together and a team that has a sense of vision and direction is our best chance in Pittsburgh to bring a championship back in.”
Nutting said earning back the faith of the fans — attendance at PNC Park has dropped each of the past two seasons after a record-setting 2015 — will depend on the Pirates’ performance this season.
“What we need to do this year is to earn those fans’ trust by performing on the field,” Nutting said. “We need to earn their support as we perform and as we go forward.”
Nutting said trading McCutchen, a five-time All-Star, was “a brutally challenging discussion” that he made only after being convinced by the “deep, absolute conviction” by president Frank Coonelly, Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle.
“I wanted to be personally confident that we had turned over every alternative, we turned over every stone, we looked for every option, before we made a decision that was personally agonizing and agonizing for our fans,” Nutting said. “My job also is to have faith in the people and the process that we put in place, and we had overwhelming conviction within that team that we were doing the right thing for the club in both the short-term and the long-term.”
Yet Nutting said he doesn’t regret his comment about wanting McCutchen to be Pirate for life, when he said in 2016 he wished the Pirates could have signed McCutchen to a lifetime contract.
“No, I don’t. I would say them again,” Nutting said. “I think he is a special human being, a special player. There is no reason to minimize the impact he’s had on the organization. We took all of that into account before we made the challenging decision to move forward in a different direction. Is that anybody’s preference? No. Do we all have challenging decisions we need to make from time to time? Yes.
“As a CEO, very few easy decisions end up on my desk. At a certain point, you make tough decisions and live with the consequences, positive or negative. I accept that. I embrace it. I meant what I said and still, in a perfect world, would love to have seen that be the result.”
Although the Pirates didn’t sign any free agents to major league deals, Nutting said he believes “Pittsburgh is going to be a very attractive place for (players) to want to come” if the Pirates return to winning ways.
“People are going to want to come and play for a team that’s committed to winning, and I believe that internally and externally that’s true,” Nutting said.
“How quickly that translates into a broader reaction or belief in that, we need to prove it. We can’t simply say it. We’re going to be in a position in April and May when our actions on the field are going to have to speak louder than my words today.”
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review sports columnist. You can contact Kevin by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .