Even though the NHL lockout ended in time for the authorities to cobble together a legitimate hockey season and a full narrative of playoffs, the game's prolonged hiatus through the fall and most of January had some unintended consequences.
It compelled some of us to pay attention, for example, to the dreary production called The Pirates In Winter, a reliably maudlin exercise I'd traditionally tried to ignore once the puck dropped as scheduled in October.
I much preferred it that way because the Pirates always return from the trade market with not much more than a basket of unfolded laundry, and their reluctant forays into the free-agent market typically resulted in a self-conscious trip home with a few items from the dollar store, items it sometimes didn't even take until June before someone asked, "What did think they were getting with that guy?"
Things likely are no better or worse this time around, even with the conspicuous additions of catcher Russell Martin from the New York Yankees and pitcher Francisco Liriano from the Minnesota Twins, conspicuous more for what the Pirates agreed to pay, about $30 million for both over the next two years, than for the potential return on that investment.
Martin is a .211 hitting catcher whose decent power numbers will fade in PNC Park's spacious left-center field, even if he does manage to throw out a potential base-stealer more than once a month, and Liriano was pitching so atrociously with his good arm you'd be tempted to instruct him to throw with his bad arm, except it's broken.
I wouldn't expect to see Liriano in the rotation much before June 1, and no one should be surprised if it is that acquisition that ultimately costs general manager Neal Huntington his job, but I'm not sure how many fans would consider that bad news.
The bad news, the really bad news for Pirates fans, is wrapped up in the steepening landscape of in-market television money, which is sending gushers of cash in the direction of teams that don't really need it, like the Los Angeles Dodgers, and swollen rivers of capital to teams that probably didn't even expect it, like the Cleveland Indians and Oakland A's.
No significant increase in money, however, is flowing from Root Sports to the Pirates, who are in just the fourth year of a 10-year deal that brings in something like $20 million annually.
The Indians, hardly a big-market club, are getting roughly twice that figure. The A's, who aren't even the No. 1 team in the Bay Area market, likewise will absorb something like $40 million. The Dodgers, who've joined the oceans-deep pocketed Angels at the new center of baseball's financial universe, just completed a new deal with Time Warner Cable that will bring in $7 billion over the next 20 years, which feels like $350 million annually. I haven't seen the documents, but I get the impression the Dodgers are doing very, very well.
Though I'd be loathe to suggest any course of action that would further augment Bob Nutting's bottom line, it's evident that something ought to be done about what industry insiders know is a terrible deal for the Pirates, aka a great deal for Root Sports in Pittsburgh.
Although he's on record as saying he's just tickled with the current arrangement, Nutting should walk down the street and offer a 20- or 25-year commitment in exchange for a drastic upward adjustment in compensation for the ballclub. The Pirates, for all their pratfalls, get good-to-great ratings for Root, good as a habit and great when they spasm toward competence. If the Pirates went away, in fact, Root Sports in Pittsburgh would be -- what's that industry term -- be screwed.
There aren't enough Penguins games to balance the books.
With emerging technologies piggy-backing on Google's experiment in Kansas City, called Google Fiber, the ways in which TV is being delivered could convulse in the next few years, which means traffickers such as Root and Comcast are anxious to lock up product long-term.
Root Sports ought to jump at the chance to continue a very lucrative partnership that can sustain its own synergies through the next quarter century. Further, Root Sports, in exchange for, let's say, doubling its payments to Pirates, should stipulate that the entirety of the new money go into the big-league product, as it is the only the big-league product that Root is televising.
The Pirates should insist on a provision that opens the contract for a periodic review relative to fair-market value for their product, and Root can use that to adjust it negatively if the ballclub shows no better aptitude for talent acquisition and development.
It's possible, I suppose, that Root and Nutting are perfectly content with their current profit margins, but both need to look harder at the game's financial landscape. With no change, the Pirates will, before long, be competitively buried.
Their fans deserve so much better.