Saturday, August 28, 2010

Spending money to make money: Would it work for Pittsburgh?

After being swept in a three-game series by the Dodgers, there was little doubt that the Brewers were ecstatic to see the Pittsburgh Pirates come to town for a weekend series. Going into tonight’s game, the Brewers were 10-5 against the Pirates in 2010 and 43-17 since 2007. Overall Pittsburgh has a 43-85 record this year, following up 62-99 (2009), 67-95 (2008) and 68-94 (2007) campaigns. You have to go all the way back to 2004 to find a season in which the Pirates won more than 70 ball games. 

OK. You get it. The Pirates are not a good baseball team. And tonight’s game was a good illustration of this fact.

James McDonald, a recent acquisition from the Los Angeles Dodgers, was nearly untouchable for the first five innings for the Pirates. Milwaukee managed just one hit, an infield single by Alcides Escobar. During this stretch Pittsburgh put together a 2-0 lead, with a few timely hits (and a dropped ball at home plate) in the second and a solo home run in the fifth. The Brewers finally broke through for one run in the sixth but were unable to tie the score when Ryan Braun hit into an inning ending double play. (Replays showed he was safe.)

And then the seventh inning happened (to the Bucs!)—in much the same way the sixth inning usually happens to the Brewers. With one out and runners on first and second, Escobar tagged one to the opposite field. Right fielder Lastings Milledge froze for a half second and then broke back but the ball was over his head and to his left. By the time Milledge got the ball into the infield, two runs had scored and Escobar stood on third. It was as if Milledge opened the floodgates for the Brewers. These would be the first two of six runs that the Brewers would score in the seventh inning.

Chris Narveson picked up his tenth victory, pitching seven innings and allowing two runs on seven hits and one walk. He struck out eight.

The Pirates have been the subject of much discussion in the baseball world. Eighteen consecutive losing seasons will do that. Sports Illustrated ran an article in July that detailed the Pirates woes. “There hasn't been one seminal event or single colossal error that has sunk the Pirates' ship. Rather—fitting for a city situated at the convergence of three rivers—a confluence of factors has created this singular awfulness. Bad trades. Bad picks. Bad signings. Bad finances. Alone, none is insurmountable. But taken together, they create a death spiral for a faltering small-market team.”

A recent article on Slate gave the situation in Pittsburgh an interesting twist. Taking confidential information published on Deadspin, this article analyzed whether the Pirates should spend money to win ballgames. “In light of these financial statements, the Pirates have been criticized for refusing to spend money to make money. It's not clear, though, that Pittsburgh's owners could spend more on player salaries without turning their profits into losses. Buying wins is not a cheap proposition.”

Sabermetricians have found that it costs approximately $5 million to purchase each additional win. It is not clear that these additional wins would give the organization a return on its investment, especially when the potential loss of revenue sharing money is factored into the equation. In other words, the Pirates would probably lose money to become only marginally better. The good news (if you can call it that), for fans of other small market teams—like the Brewers, is that you don’t always need a big payroll to be good. You have to rely on “young, cheap players” and hope for a little luck if you want to make a run at the playoffs. Signing veteran stars to long-term contracts is not an option. 

Milwaukee’s payroll of $81 million is significantly higher than the $35 million that Pittsburgh doled out this year. Milwaukee ranks 18th out of 30 clubs in payroll in 2010—a giant leap forward since it spent $27 million in 2004. While I am not always happy with the manner in which the $80 million payroll is spent, I am happy that the Brewers organization spends it. I am glad that at least some of our best players, who were developed through the Brewers farm system, will be Brewers in the upcoming years. I am glad that we can go after free agents, too. (Again, happy with the ability, not always the selection.) The hope (in Pittsburgh) is that the same will happen for the Pirates—that many of their young players will develop and lead a charge in a few years. This is not my hope. I am ecstatic when the Pirates come to town.

Brewers 7, Pirates 2
Game played 8-27-10

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