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Gordo: Cardinals, Pirates illustrate baseball's competitive imbalance

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Red Sox Pirates Spring Baseball

Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton goes to the dugout before a spring training baseball game against the Boston Red Sox, Tuesday, March 29, 2022, in Bradenton, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Pirates starting pitcher JT Brubaker is fired up for Opening Day. He will share in the special afternoon as Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols start one last Cardinals ride together.

“It’s awesome, because I think I was still in high school when all three of those guys were playing together, not to date them by any means,” Brubaker said Sunday. “I grew up watching those guys play together. It was fun to watch. To actually start against them with them in the lineup, it’s an awesome moment. I’m honored to be in that type of presence between those three.”

The atmosphere will be supercharged, which is not something the rebuilding Pirates experience often. The contrast of these mid-market franchises is jarring and troubling.

While Cardinals fans celebrate the longevity of Wainwright (17th season) and Molina (18th season), Pirates fans are just happy the team hasn’t dealt fourth-year veteran outfielder Bryan Reynolds yet.

After all, the team has traded away most of its standouts the past few years while replacing them with youngsters and stopgap veterans. Unlike the Cardinals, the Pirates place little value on star power or nostalgia.

Their entire opening payroll is only slightly higher than the $35 million Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado will earn by himself this season. The current Cardinals payroll is nearly $120 million more than Pittsburgh’s total.

That such a discrepancy can exist is mind-boggling, but that’s Our National Pastime for you. The latest labor dispute did not produce significant change.

The players pushed the issue in bargaining, but settled for modest progress. Competitive imbalance remains a vexing problem for the sport.

Franchises are still free to spend the bare minimum on players. The Pirates enter this season with just six players earning $2 million or more, topped by Roberto Perez’s $5 million.

Cardinals fans want owner Bill DeWitt Jr. to invest more into payroll, but how would they like to live in Pittsburgh?

The Cardinals have reached the last three postseasons. Meanwhile the Pirates finished 69-93, 19-41 and 61-101 while trading veterans for prospects and slashing payroll year over year.

This outcome disparity is not just a recent trend. The Cardinals have reached the postseason 15 times in this millennium while the Pirates have made the playoffs just three times since 1992.

The Cardinals have enjoyed 14 straight winning seasons. The Pirates have cleared .500 just four times since 1992.

There are no excuses for that miserable performance, particularly in recent years. The Pirates play in a beautiful stadium in a great sports market.

Team owner Robert Nutting is a billionaire. But “Bottom Line Bob” signed off on the cost-cutting rebuild after the Pirates faded back into mediocrity following their strong 2013-15 run.

Attendance waned even before the pandemic — falling below 1.5 million in both 2018 and 2019 — but the franchise remained profitable thanks to local media deals and shared revenues within Major League Baseball.

Forbes Magazine crunched the Pirates numbers and estimated $64 million in operating revenue for the franchise last season. Baseball Prospectus crunched the Forbes numbers and estimated a profit margin of 24.8 percent.

So Pirates management feels no urgency to return the playoff chase any time soon.

“This is not going to be where we flip the switch and the next day, all of a sudden, we’re in the World Series,” Pirates president Travis Williams said after firing general manager Neal Huntington in 2019. “We’re going to have to get a GM in place, put a plan in place that charts a path forward within the framework that we’re operating that we can get back to being a very successful team.”

Ben Cherington signed on as GM to guide the retooling. While with the Boston Red Sox, he helped build an impressive nucleus of young talent before ownership switched back into “win now” mode under old school wheeler-dealer Dave Dombrowski.

Cherington is repeating his talent evaluation success with the Pirates, who have built one of the most promising talent pipelines in the majors.

Shortstop/outfielder Oneil Cruz, shortstop Liover Peguero, second baseman Nick Gonzales, catcher Henry Davis, and pitchers Roansy Contreras and Quinn Priester are just some of the blue-chip youngsters who could emerge during the next few seasons.

Meanwhile manager Derek Shelton is doing his best to maintain a positive player development atmosphere under challenging circumstances. His mandate is to keep the Pirates playing the right way, win or lose.

“The one thing that we’ve looked at as a group is how we can get better and what forces us to get better,” Shelton said as spring training wound down. “The fact we’ve had to adapt and adjust … we need to figure out how we are going to facilitate this, how are we going to get better every day.”

Buying more proven talent for this season would speed the process, but that’s not likely.

The Pirates better enjoy big crowds and the high-energy hoopla at Busch Stadium this weekend because they’re in for a long season of suffering.

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