By Rob Rossi
Monday, April 6, 2015
Cincinnati Reds' starting pitcher Johnny Cueto throws against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the first inning of an opening day baseball game Monday, April 6, 2015, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)
Wait, the Cincinnati Reds, owners of the highest payroll in the National League Central, are going to trade this guy?
“That (performance is) pretty consistent. That's what makes him a good pitcher,” Andrew McCutchen, the greatest Pirate since skinny Barry Bonds, said of Reds starter Johnny Cueto's 10-strikeout gem to open a baseball season at Great American Ball Park.
“He locates well. He doesn't give you much to hit. He mixes it up, so that's what he does. You've just got to adjust to it and have good at-bats.”
Or, if you're “the best management team in baseball,” you could go get one of the best pitchers likely to be traded.
Pirates owner Bob Nutting believes he has that very management team. I'm not going to argue. The work general manager Neal Huntington and staff have done to transform the Pirates from lame loser to trendy World Series pick is remarkable.
These Pirates are going to be really, really good. They lost their opener 5-2 on Monday, and in doing so somehow reinforced my belief they're close to a championship — certainly a division title, and maybe the title of Best in the World.
McCutchen, looking healthy after a spring training stalled by injury, was robbed of at least a double in the first inning. That hardly seemed to matter in the eighth, when he rocked a shot that tied the score 2-2.
Clutch is what Cutch does, though.
Andrew Lambo's 13-pitch at-bat that preceded McCutchen's homer was the kind of stuff that great teams get a lot of from pinch hitters. Over the next 161 games, more of “that'll play,” as manager Clint Hurdle likes to say.
But are the Pirates serious about playing?
I hate having to pose that rhetorical question. I especially hate to ask it after an offseason when the Pirates seemed to make a real charge to keep catcher Russell Martin, arguably their most important player the past two seasons, and flatly refused to lose Francisco Liriano, inarguably their best starter over that span.
However, there I was early Monday afternoon reading Associated Press reports of team payrolls, and there the Pirates ranked 25th out of 30 teams.
So, I'm asking the rhetorical question that only Nutting can answer: Are the Pirates serious?
Because, Mr. Nutting, a payroll of $86,713,000 sure seems like a loogey lobbed at fans — 4,699,462 of whom packed PNC Park the past two seasons — who deserve your full investment in winning. And spending $16,257,536 less than the Milwaukee Brewers is not your full investment.
It's also nowhere close to what the Chicago Cubs ($119,187,385), St. Louis Cardinals ($119,851,958) and Reds ($120,057,072) are paying ballplayers this summer.
Can we all agree that the Pirates should at least be within Cueto's salary ($10 million) of the Brewers? Is it too much to ask that the Pirates get within the combined cost of Brandon Phillips and Todd Frazier ($15,833,333) of the Reds?
The Pirates could add Cueto, Phillips and Frazier, and they still would be about $7.5 million short of what the Reds were paying to start this season.
Times have changed.
The Pirates aren't a feel-good story anymore. They're a contender, coming off two consecutive postseason appearances, and they need to start acting like one.
Contenders will go after Cueto, an impending free agent whom the Reds are reportedly resigned to move not long after the All-Star Game is played at Great American Ball Park in mid-July.
The Pirates are talking about “taking the next step.” The Pirates are loaded with prized prospects. The Pirates could make a major play for Cueto, and they wouldn't have to rent him, either.
They could keep him and, with Liriano and Gerrit Cole, build a rotation the likes of which has never been seen by Pittsburghers over 129 seasons.
The next step for the Pirates is spending money, not just on team-friendly deals, but B-I-G money.
I've endorsed paying McCutchen what he's worth. If not, at least pay to provide him with what he needs to become a champion while he's a Pirate.
Nobody is asking you to behave like a Steinbrenner, Mr. Nutting.
But it wouldn't bankrupt you to be a Brewer.
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.
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