CLEVELAND – This was quite unlikely.
The team with the lowest payroll in the major leagues spent a pleasant first evening of September in the middle of the pennant race, facing the team with the fourth-lowest payroll who also found themselves in the midst of the pennant race on Thursday at Progressive Field.
Meanwhile, the team with the third-lowest payroll had the night off in Pittsburgh, trying to forget about what has turned into a nightmarish season in the six weeks since the All-Star break.
The Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland Guardians both have a chance at reaching the postseason.
The Orioles posted a 3-0 victory Thursday night to continue their unexpected run at a playoff spot. The Orioles’ $43.7 million payroll is the smallest in the big leagues, according to Cot’s Contracts.
Yet Baltimore is 1.5 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays for the third and final AL wild card berth.
The Guardians, with a $68.2-million payroll, hold a one-game lead in the AL Central over the Minnesota Twins despite having the youngest roster in the major leagues.
The Pirates, who have a $55.7-million payroll, aren’t close to where the Orioles and Guardians are. Pittsburgh is trying to avoid a fourth straight last-place finish in the National League Central and second consecutive 100-loss season.
It seems certain the Pirates will be consigned to having a low payroll for however long Bob Nutting owns the team. That is the way he has operated since taking control of the franchise and how he runs all his businesses.
So, what lessons can the Pirates take from the Orioles and Guardians when it comes to winning on a tight budget?
“You’ve got to have patience,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “You’re going to have a lot of young players and it isn’t always going to be perfect.”
The Orioles aren’t quite as youthful as the Guardians and still aren’t totally clear of the rebuilding phase.
Presently, the Pirates are trying to follow the Orioles’ model and build from the ground up. Long-term, though, the Guardians are an organization general manager Ben Cherington and the rest of his baseball operations department should want to emulate.
The Orioles tore their organization down to the ground following a 115-loss season in 2018. They fired general manager Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter, replacing them with Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde.
The Orioles lost 108 games in 2019, went 25-35 during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season then had a 110-loss season last year.
Coming into this season, the Orioles were again universally picked to finish last in the AL East. Even Hyde admits he did not expect his team to have a shot at the playoffs in 2022.
Hyde laid out a bit of a blueprint prior to Thursday’s game about how a team can follow the Orioles’ path from doormat to contender.
“It’s a lot of things that have to change and go right to be in this kind of position we’re in now,” Hyde said. “The first thing is our pitching. It’s improved so much. They’ve been able to keep us in ballgames all year long. Our bullpen has held leads for the most part and given us a chance to win.
“We have some core players who have been here for a few years who have gotten better. Then you put a few veterans around them and then you add some youth, some talented young players like (catcher) Adley Rutschman and (infielder) Gunnar Henderson. You put all that together and you have a competitive team.”
Sounds simple enough. Yet it’s not.
The Pirates’ pitching is awful with its 4.69 ERA, ranking 26th in the major leagues. The Orioles are 10th with a 3.79 ERA.
Including Rutschman and Henderson, the Orioles have five players who can be considered part of their long-term lineup core. The list also includes first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, center fielder Cedric Mullins and right fielder Anthony Santander. The Pirates have just three such players in third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, shortstop Oneil Cruz and center fielder Bryan Reynolds.
Rutschman was the consensus best prospect in baseball when he was promoted to the major leagues in May. When Henderson got the call to the big leagues Tuesday, he was ranked as either the sport’s No. 1 or No. 2 prospect by most analysts. Cruz was highly touted in the prospect rankings earlier this year but wasn’t in the top 10 on most lists.
So, the Pirates have some work to do to match what the Orioles have in place. And there is a lot of work to be done before the Pirates can be on equal footing with the Guardians and their sustained success.
Cleveland will likely finish with a winning record for the ninth time in 10 seasons since luring the two-time World Series-winning Francona from the ESPN broadcast booth.
There are many reasons for the Guardians’ success, first and foremost president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff consistently putting together good rosters on a tight budget.
Few would quibble with the idea Francona is the best manager in baseball. Nobody gets more from his talent, this season being the most shining example yet.
The Guardians are also willing to spend when needed. They signed star third baseman Jose Ramirez to an eight-year, $121-million contract extension in April.
“You need to have good players, first and foremost, and we have a lot of young players who have played very well this season,” Antonetti told PittsburghBaseballNow. “A lot of credit goes to (Francona) and our coaching staff, too. They create an environment where young players can relax but also learn from their mistakes and get better. And we have great ownership that always provides us what we need to be a successful organization.”
It is hard to draw firm comparisons between the management of the Pirates and Guardians.
Cherington won a World Series with the big-budget Red Sox in the same role in 2013, but this is his first time building an organization from scratch on a shoestring budget. Manager Derek Shelton’s teams play hard but it is difficult to get a full grasp of his game management skills because of the lack of appealing options on his roster.
The Pirates looked like they were taking a step forward prior to the All-Star break. However, they have gone 10-27 since then.
The Pirates will be given no chance of reaching the postseason when the 2023 season begins. Of course, no one figured the Guardians or Orioles would be contenders on opening day.
The success of the Orioles and Guardians is enough to make any Pirates’ fan envious. Yet it can also provide a ray of hope that perhaps better days aren’t so far off.