On a slow Labor Day news cycle, the Pirates announced that Clint Hurdle had been signed to a 4-year extension. Recently at TPOP, we’ve speculated that for his own mental well-being, it would be best for Hurdle to walk away from Pittsburgh and find an organization with more of a financial commitment to winning.
Back that was a long…two weeks ago. If the field manager has been extended, that means that GM Neal Huntington has been quietly re-upped, too. No manager is going to get extended without his boss’s own status being assured, too. In light of his being asleep at the switch during various intervals of this season, with it all coming to a crescendo over the Juan Nicasio waiver debacle, that will come as a mild surprise to me, as well.
It’s always fun to have a job, though. It’s really fun to have a job that pays you very well. Yes, yes, Bob Nutting probably clips coupons before he goes shopping, I know. But there are only 30 Major League manager and GM jobs and Clint Hurdle and Neal Huntington claim one of those pair. And they are handsomely compensated for their troubles.
The 4 year part of Hurdle’s extension is what gets my brain synapses firing. I could see the future of the Pirates playing out in a couple of scenarios, as explained to Clint Hurdle during his negotiations.
SCENARIO 1 — WE’RE GOING FOR IT IN 2018
In a mahogany paneled boardroom within 115 Federal Street, Clint Hurdle may have questioned either Bob Nutting and/or Neal Huntington on where the direction of the franchise was going. After his frustration at times this year with having no cavalry arriving in the form of Major League vets, it’s easy to imagine that Clint Hurdle asked for a higher payroll if he was going to come back in 2018.
This discussion scenario imagines just that. I’ve long held to the idea that the Pirates are underfunding their payroll by $15-20M, based on their estimated revenues done by both Forbes and us. For this 2017 year, with revenues from 2016 estimated to be around $260M, that would equate to a $117M payroll, presuming 45% of revenue goes to payroll — an industry standard. The Pirates tucked it in right around $100M this year and that was allotting for a full year of Kang ($2.75M ), Marte ($5.3M), and Jared Hughes’ arbitration salary ($2.8M), of which he was owed just $700K after they cut him at the end of Spring Training.
Bob Nutting, in this hypothetical, promised that he would more adequately fund the team for one last rodeo in 2018 before Clint Hurdle and Neal Huntington both agreed to rebuild. In Scenario 1, Huntington is promised $115M to work with and Hurdle is promised that it will be spent on Major League vets that have quality on their resumes, not just reclamation projects.
How this $115M hypothetical roster will be constructed is an article for another day once the season is put out to pasture in October. But suffice it to say, it involves keeping core veterans like McCutchen, Cole, and Harrison for one last shot at glory. And also, worth nothing of course, this is the scenario that I would prescribe to.
SCENARIO 2 — MINOR TEARDOWN, FOLLOWED BY A RUN
With the disappointing 2017 season mercifully nearing its end, attendance is drastically down from 2016. Last year, also an excruciating year to watch the Pirates, the average attendance was 27,758. This year it is off nearly 3,500 fans per game at 24,287 as of this writing. With the average cost of a ticket just under $30, that’s a loss of $8.5M of revenue just from pure ticket sales. Then add in that each person probably spends (conservatively) $20 in food , drink, and merchandise, of which the Pirates get 30% from Aramark, and there’s another $1.7M.
It’s easy to see where $10.2M could get chopped off 2018’s payroll next year as an excuse for the fans not showing up.
In this scenario, a 4 year plan (shudder, flashbacks to McClatchy) is laid out for Clint Hurdle in which some veterans with control are traded for impact prospects that will close to the Majors. Coupled with the young talent that is already on hand and controlled for long chunks of time (Jameson Taillon, Felipe Rivero, Josh Bell) and the mid-career veterans like Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco on long deals, it’s not hard to imagine this pitch going well.
Gerrit Cole and Josh Harrison, if traded, could fetch a nice haul of players. Those players, whether prospects on the cusp of the Majors or players with scads of team control left, could be augmented onto the 2018 roster. Perhaps that roster itself could be competitive. I doubt it, but stranger things have happened.
More likely, the young talent all endures some lumps in 2018, the Pirates build back to a Wild Card in 2019, and then the Pirates contend for the NL Central division title in 2020 and 2021 with strong payrolls during the last two years of Hurdle’s deal. Those are also the years that the Cubs may start to be slowing down with their current core, as well.
This scenario relies on a few things. First, Neal Huntington has to be able to identify and obtain a high-quality package for his top-tier talent, something he hasn’t always been successful at in the past. Cole and Harrison would be his two best overall trade chips during his tenure (Jason Bay was fairly limited defensively by the time he was moved). Second, Clint Hurdle has to trust that Bob Nutting will keep his word 3 to 4 years into the future and fund the payroll more fully. That’s asking for a lot of faith, even for a man that has plenty of faith in his life.
THE LOOMING TV DEAL
Why 4 years? Perhaps it’s because the Pirates’ current TV deal with AT&T SportsNet expires at the end of the 2019 season. Maybe Clint Hurdle was promised that the re-negotiated deal will swell the coffers of the franchise and that will enable them to supplement the payroll. The ratings have plummeted this 2017 season, as fans have turned away from the drudgery of this season. The team needs to show strong heading into negotiations. Can the new deal be the panacea hoped for by all parties?
Maybe, but maybe not. The Cincy Reds re-upped their deal this past offseason and neither hide nor hare of it has leaked out. That’s almost impossible in this current day and age. But it could be as a result of the Reds not getting as much as they hoped for in this era of cord cutters. I’ve long speculated that the local TV bubble was going to burst and the Pirates were going to be among the teams that missed the boon on the front end of it, around 2010-11, and are now consigned to living in the bust end of the bubble on the back end of it.
They’ll still get some increase and it will kick in during the 2020 season, year 3 of Hurdle’s deal. That’s the time I postulated in Scenario 2 that the Pirates could be division contenders again.
I’ve said this on various platforms and radio shows, but it bears repeating. I firmly believe that the bones of a 2018 playoff team are here for the Pirates. That’s hard to see with the way this current squad has performed, but some key additions here and drama-free offseasons there (Starling Marte) could result in a team good enough to challenge one final time in 2018 before a re-build is necessary.
Mark me down for Scenario 1, even though I’m bracing for Scenario 2 to occur. It’s never easy being a Pirate fan. Just imagine what it’s like to be Clint Hurdle at times.