This opus on Pirates manager John Russell and owner Bob Nutting is classic Bob Smizik, full of strangled reasoning and unfounded speculation. Specifically, Smizik wonders if Russell might be fired due to the Pirates' poor record:
I’m wondering if the possibility of finishing with the worst record in baseball might make them change their mind about Russell, and, in fact, might even make owner Bob Nutting meddle in baseball operations. Nutting does not like to do that.
A couple of points here:
1) Did Smizik miss the excellent reporting his own paper did a week ago on the firings of pitching coach Joe Kerrigan and bench coach Gary Varsho? Russell himself took the credit for firing Kerrigan and Varsho, and he apparently did so because they weren't loyal enough to him. Managers who are on the hot seat generally don't get to fire coaches who aren't sufficiently loyal.
2) As Smizik himself points out, Bob Nutting really isn't a meddler. When former GM Dave Littlefield wanted to trade for Matt Morris and his bloated contract while the Pirates were in the middle of a lost season, Nutting let him do it, and later claimed that he did so because had to trust his general manager. There's no real reason to think he's going to reverse course now and start overruling Neal Huntington who, unlike Littlefield, was hired after Nutting took control of the team.
What makes Smizik's argument a classic, though, isn't that he thinks Russell could be fired. Personally, I think the Kerrigan/Varsho situation makes it look pretty clear that Russell is unlikely to be dismissed anytime soon, but obviously, the Pirates are in the midst of an awful season, so it would be unwise to completely discount the possibility that they might fire their manager.
No, what makes his argument a real howler is the reason Smizik thinks Russell might be fired, and it isn't merely that the Pirates are bad:
But if the Pirates finish with the worst record it could cost Nutting a sizable amount of money ...
In 2009, the No. 1 choice in the June draft was Stephen Strasburg. In order to sign him, the Washington National had to pay him $15.1 million. The second player picked, Dustin Ackley, signed for $7.5 million. There is expected to be a similar difference this year -- if the players sign -- between No. 1 pick Bryce Harper, again with Washington, and Jameson Taillon, selected by the Pirates.
Which means form probably will hold true in 2011 and the No. 1 pick can expect to get at least $5 million to $7 million more than the No. 2.
Wait ... what? Russell will be fired not so much because of the Pirates' poor record, but because that poor record will force the Pirates to spend more in the draft? Not only does that stretch cynicism about Nutting to really incredible places (you don't have to like the guy to at least believe that he doesn't need the extra financial motivation to dislike losing for its own sake), but it just doesn't make much sense. For one thing, there isn't a Strasburg- or Harper-level talent to be had in next year's draft, at least not one that we know of, so it's unlikely that the top overall pick will get $15 million or anything near it.
Also, Nutting doesn't mind spending money in the draft! Again, whether you love the guy or hate him, there just isn't any getting around this. The Pirates spent more money combined in the 2008 and 2009 drafts than any other team. And if they sign their top two 2010 picks, Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie, before Monday night's signing deadline, they'll be among the sport's top spenders once again. (If they don't sign those two, Smizik will have the ammo for another attack piece, only then I'll probably have to agree with him. But every indication right now suggests both deals will get done.)
There's no doubt that Nutting cares about the bottom line, but the popular perception of him as a miser who values penny-pinching above all else falls apart when one looks at what the man actually does. If Nutting is so cheap, why do the Bucs spend so much money in the draft, where spending freely doesn't even have the benefit of sending obvious signals to the masses? At least dumping $6 million on Jeromy Burnitz looks impressive to the casual fan, or at least it does until Burnitz actually takes the field; the same can't be said of spending a similar amount on guys like Zach Von Rosenberg and Colton Cain and Robbie Grossman and Quinton Miller.
There are, of course, many legitimate questions about Nutting. It makes sense that the Pirates wouldn't want to have big major-league payrolls now, when they can't even keep their heads above water, but Nutting's willingness to spend much, much more if the Pirates actually do put together the core of a potential contender remains untested. Nutting might also be guilty of allowing former figurehead Kevin McClatchy to run the team badly for far too long before 2007 - or, in other words, Nutting might be guilty of not meddling enough. But many of the signs since Nutting formally took control in 2007 have actually been positive, as the Pirates have turned the focus of the organization to building from within with young players.
There is no need to nominate Nutting for an owner-of-the-year award. But in the meantime, it would be nice if some of his vocal critics stuck to arguments that are rooted in fact. He isn't perfect, but he isn't a cartoon villain, either, and attacking him for his most obvious strength - his willingness to spend big bucks in the draft - is just strange.