A fault line runs through Pittsburgh sports and everything above that line, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Steelers, seems to only become stronger with plate shifts while those below the line, the Pittsburgh Pirates, seem to crumble, piece-by-piece, into the confluence.
This heavy-handed metaphor came to me as I was driving a work truck Tuesday afternoon to a job site – you see, I teach English by fall, winter and spring, but help a construction company by summer. So I’m driving the work truck, which I love despite it’s rusty body and failing mechanics, and two afternoon hosts on 93.7, The Fan, are debating the merits of trading or keeping Phil Kessel.
Seems innocuous until framed against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Pirates and their typical offseason dilemmas – the tension of opposites between winning and making money.
Then I read Pittsburgh Beautiful on Friday and the same debate was waged by our very own Zeke Caresani. Zeke argued for keeping Kessel, and I agree, but what is more pertinent here is that the Penguins are going to make a hockey decision where Kessel is concerned.
Will we win the Cup with Kessel, or will we win it by moving him and rebuilding our blue line?
That is how the Pens will approach the Kessel question. Of course finances will be a factor. Kessel is slated to make $27.2 million over the next four years which is a major cap commitment for any team, so moving him may not even be feasible, but if there is a taker and the Pens’ brass thinks it makes them better, they’d pull the trigger so fast it would impress Billy the Kid.
Then there are the Steelers. Who doubts their commitment to fielding a winner? Are they perfect? By no means. They swing and miss as often as they hit on players, and they are not so savvy in the free agent arena, but they find ways to field enough talent to almost beat New England every year, and that’s not so bad.
The culture of the Pens and Steelers is unwavering. Both are for profit, and both manage to make one while maintaining a winner.
Before you go there – you’re right.
The obvious retort here is that the Steelers and Pens both operate in leagues with hard salary caps and the Pirates do not have the money to compete with the big money spenders in baseball.
Of course that is part of the equation and it is correct – the Pirates cannot afford to make huge salary commitment to free agents, nor can they afford to misjudge the talent they control.
Without boring readers with the payrolls of recent playoff teams and World Series winners (the Houston Astros won the 2017 with the 17th ranked payroll in Major League Baseball), the questions remains, can’t the Pirates spend up to the league average to try to contend?
Moreover, when the Pirates option Adam Frazier back to Indianapolis and keep Sean Rodriguez in the fold, aren’t they waving the white flag?
Clint Hurdle has a very long, boring, baseball manager take on why Rodriguez is essential to a team like the Pirates. Defensive versatility and a professional, experienced approach to his job.
Keeping Rodriguez, a player with no future in Major League baseball (until he is finally jettisoned to his real calling – coaching) over Frazier, a scuffling youngster with a possible future, is called giving up, and it is the mindset of the Pirates – their culture – and their greatest weakness.
A shout out to a deserving young man:
Please forgive for the following self-serving shout out, but Tyler Smith deserves it.
I met Tyler during my first season coaching baseball at Penn-Trafford high school. He was a freshman and was throwing a bullpen at a preseason workout. A fellow coach called me over and asked my opinion on Tyler and another pitcher, a senior. I was just happy I was being asked my opinion, so I watched the two of them throw about five pitches. I turned to my fellow coach and offered the following analysis on Tyler, who I did not know from anyone else in the room:
“That kid right there – the freshman – he’s going to play professional baseball someday, so I would keep him over the senior.”
Now, I’m not trying to break my arm patting my own back here, but last Tuesday in the 8th round of the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft, my bold prediction came true.
Tyler was selected with the 241st pick by the Los Angeles Angels following a stellar career as a closer at Canisius College in Buffalo where he graduated with a degree in finance.
His reaction to hearing his name called by the Halos, “It was surreal. I seriously couldn’t believe it.”
Well deserved, Tyler. Stay low in the zone and you will be fine.
You can find all of David Moio’s columns on Pittsburgh sports right here!