The Pittsburgh Pirates are currently over .500 almost half way through the season. They’re two games out of first as they fight for their first winning season since 1992. This new-found relevance has lead to increased attendance at PNC Park. Pittsburghers have been waiting a long time to embrace their Bucs again.
In reality the club has a negative run-differential. One would figure that if either the Cardinals, Brewers, or Reds could get hot that they would leave the Pirates in the dust. I was listening the “The Baseball Show with Rany and Joe” podcast this afternoon and they were debating what course of action the Pirates should take. Rany Jazyleri was arguing that if a month from now the Pirates were still in it that they need to be buyers at the trade deadline. Joe Sheehan couldn’t envision the Pirates still in the hunt and felt they should sell off any assets that they have for prospects that may help the club when they are truly ready to contend.
Both arguments have merit, but on balance I’m more inclined to believe that if anything the Pirates should be buyers. This naturally is based on the assumption that the club doesn’t go 8-20 in July. This is clearly not a great club at the moment and they could easily bring back most of the same players next year and win 70 games. In that situation trading prospects in an effort to end the streak and maybe sneak into the playoffs would be ill advised if it set back the club in the long-term.
That doesn’t mean that the club should not be able to take on salary. The Pirates have been guilty of pocketing revenue sharing money for years. There is no reason why they could not add a veteran player on a high salary at the deadline. In recent years teams that have taken the majority of a player’s salary in deadline deals have had to give up far less in the way prospects. If the club could add Carlos Beltran and absorb the pro-rated portion of his $18m salary they might not have to give up impact prospects. The Mets need to save every dime they can. If they really want to be bold maybe they could bring Jason Bay back and hope that by getting him out of Citi Field he finds his power stroke. The Pirates likely wouldn’t have to eat all of the salary either. Neither of these moves are at all likely, but if a deal along these lines only costs the club money and a Single A pitcher with no breaking ball there is no reason for them not to.
Even if there is a remote chance for contention the Pirates should be buyers. Logic dictates a winning team will generally bring in more gross income. Research has shown that every win has a marginal value. Sabermetric cannon has always held that wins from 85-95 have the most marginal value and are worth the most to a club. That is due to the fact those wins make the difference between making and missing the playoffs. Making the playoffs lead to playoff revenue as well as increased ticket sales and TV ratings increase the next season after a playoff appearance.
The Pirates have already experienced a noticeable bump in attendance. The fact that the club hasn’t had a winning season since 1992 has been a millstone. The Pirates record of losing seasons in all of American sports creates a unique circumstance. If come September the Pirates are still in and around .500 fans would likely be filling up PNC. While merely the prospect of a winning record wouldn’t likely have an effect on attendance and interest for most MLB clubs, Pittsburgh is a town with a 130 year baseball history and a fan base eager to move on from the Kevin McClatchy/Syd Thrift/Cam Bonifay/Dave Littlefield nightmare of the last twenty years. Fans will want to be at the park to see the streak end.
This is during a time of year when kids go back to school, football seasons starts (assuming the NFL Lockout ends), and MLB clubs out of contention typically don’t draw as well as they do during the summer. In addition to increased game day revenue this year, if the Pirates were to do the unthinkable and cross the .500 threshold that millstone will be gone. There would be more excitement for the 2012 Pirates than there has been since the 1992 Pirates. The curve in the above graph would likely be a lot fatter or more the the left. In this unique case I’m not sure you can put a marginal dollar value on win #81 or #82.
Neither the Phillies, Cubs, Royals, Senators, Browns/Orioles have matched the Pirates streak of losing seasons. The Pirates are a proud franchise whose fans have deserved better for a long time. If they can get better without mortgaging the future in an effort to end the streak the Pirates should do it. In the mediocre NL Central that could keep the Pirates in the race all year.