Tuesday, July 19th, 2011...9:14 pm

The Pittsburgh Pirates – Baseball’s Biggest Story

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By Sam Mann

Full Disclosure: this post is not really about the law. It’s more about the business/management of baseball. I guess you could draw a tacit connection but I think that sort of stretches it. Nonetheless, I am plowing forward.

In what almost everyone would deem a surprise, the Pittsburgh Pirates are in First Place in the NL Central in the middle of July. In an even bigger surprise, their rise back to relevancy has been the lead baseball story since the All Star Break. Anyway, this is all important because the non-waiver trade deadline is July 31, making now the time when franchises decide whether they are buyers or sellers.

Buyers make trades for players who can bring value to their team now while sellers give up veteran, typically more expensive players in return for younger and cheaper players who bring future value. Occasionally you will hear a commentator rail about the inequities of this system and call it a function of baseball’s revenue divide. Personally, I think it is evidence of the free market’s effect on major professional sports. Both teams extract value because the supply and demand curves change as we get later in the season, and teams see greater opportunity to win now or build for the future.

This process plays itself out every July and is usually reasonably simple. Sometimes, as with this year’s Pirates, the decision is much more difficult. The Pirates haven’t had a winning season in 18 years (yes, that is a record), so one would think that they would make whatever moves they could to keep that winning record and sneak into the playoffs. On the other hand, the smart strategy for losing and/or small market teams is to trade veterans and stockpile young talent, as in any sport. In baseball, it is even more valuable because players are under club control and can’t be free agents until they have 6 years of major league service. The whole system is somewhat complex, but suffice it to say, that is what teams like the Rays, Royals and Pirates need to do to be competitive.

That makes this a tough decision for the Pirates: do they trade some of their prospects in the minors (the Buccos reportedly haveĀ  a lot of talent in the low minors but not many major league ready prospects that can help this year) or do they stick with the long-term plan and build for the future, as they were not expected to contend this year anyway?

From a baseball only perspective, the right play is probably not to trade anyone of value from the farm system. On paper at least, the Cardinals and the Brewers are better than the Pirates, so the odds are that they won’t make the playoffs. To a certain extent, they risk mortgaging the future for one run at glory, a run that is by no means guaranteed. One 5 or 6 game losing streak and they’re done, especially in that division with 3 teams within a game of first place.

But at the same time, I can make the argument that the Pirates need to make a move right now. Having went to school in Pittsburgh, I have watched a lot of the Pirates and know a lot of fans. Personally, I kinda like the Buccos. The fans aren’t nearly as insufferable as Steelers fans and you won’t find any bandwagon fans because, again, they haven’t won in 18 years. But the ballpark is amazing, their GM is a former D3 baseball player (Neil Huntington played at Amherst) and they have some likable guys. The problem is they have alienated lots of fans because of all the losing and the fact that their ownership is questionable at best. Despite the wonderful PNC Park, attendance has been down for years, and even this year hasn’t been great.

That is why making a trade or two makes sense for the Pirates because it would invigorate the fans, help attendance and bring more national attention to a franchise that needs it. So even if they give up a few prospects, they would gain in the win column (maybe) but also on the balance sheet. A big move would signal they are committed to winning, and I think the city would respond to that. Their other risk is alienating the fans, who have been waiting years for a potential winner if they don’t try to win this year.

To bring this all full circle and try to apply it to the law, I think it’s a testament to baseball’s system that this debate can be had. MLB’s lack of a salary cap draws ire from a lot of people who believe the system isn’t fair because the Yankees and other big market teams can just “buy” players. But that is an unsophisticated view. Yes, the Yankees have a much higher payroll than most of the league, and yes, that gives them an advantage and more room for error in every facet of their organization. But small market teams can win, and the system does give opportunities to those teams. Until about four years ago, the Pirates weren’t taking advantage of those opportunities, but now that they are, they have to decide how to best exploit their position. That is fun, interesting and good for the game.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of talk that baseball is going to change some of the draft and amateur signing procedures in the next collective bargaining agreement. Will that eliminate some of the opportunities to small market teams? (Actually, I did make a tacit connection to the law. Yay to collective bargaining).

So keep an eye out as to whether the Pirates make a move in the next few weeks. Whatever choice is made will likely have repercussions on the field, the fans and the business-side of their organization. And that’s the part very few people talk about when they discuss the trade market and other “baseball” moves.

(For the record, my personal opinion is the Pirates should only make minor deals and hold on to their top 10 or 15 prospects, realizing they will win more when their young pitching arrives in 2013 or 2014. But that’s just my opinion. I certainly wouldn’t blame them if they traded for Carlos Beltran or someone like him)

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