The line has been printed often on these pages the past couple of summers: The Milwaukee Brewers are based in a market two-thirds the size of Pittsburgh, but the Pirates have a $52 million payroll to the Brewers' $80 million.
It appears to be the single most compelling evidence that the Pirates are not spending all they can. But team president Frank Coonelly, in a PNC Park interview this week exclusively on this topic, was adamant it is not so. And, befitting his legal background, he came armed for the argument ...
First, Coonelly pointed out, without divulging specific numbers for either team, that Milwaukee -- to its credit, as he stressed -- has built up its product to the point that it has a $50 million advantage over the Pirates in local revenue, thanks almost entirely to having drawn 3 million fans last year to the Pirates' 1.6 million.
The Brewers are known to make more than $10 million annually in parking revenues, as Miller Park is surrounded by a sea of asphalt wholly in the team's control. The Pirates make zero parking money, as they control no lots or garages on the North Shore. But that gap is made up on the Pirates' end by a much richer local television contract.
"Attendance is the biggest factor, by far," Coonelly said. "And the best way to look at it is this: The gap between the teams' local revenue is larger than the gap between our payrolls."
Next, he pointed out that the Brewers and Pirates were attendance and revenue peers until 2004, when Milwaukee began decreasing payroll and focusing on the draft and development.
From that plan -- and through the successful drafts of Jack Zduriencik, then Milwaukee's scouting director, now the Seattle Mariners' general manager -- the Brewers piled up Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy, Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and others. The public there began to believe in the franchise's direction, attendance rose, the team got better, and greater revenue led to expensive additions. Some were good additions, such as the trade for CC Sabathia that led to a playoff berth, and some dubious, such as the free-agent signings of Jeff Suppan and Eric Gagne.
The Pirates, of course, had mostly miserable drafts in that span and, under previous general manager Dave Littlefield, lacked any discernible direction.
Coonelly's stance is that the Pirates are behind the Brewers in the process but following essentially the same path.
And, to that end ...
"There's no reason why Pittsburgh cannot support a payroll equal to or even exceeding the payroll that Milwaukee currently has," he said. "Because the Brewers have built a core that was sustainable, they've grown to 3 million fans while we have stayed relatively stagnant. When we demonstrate to our fans that we're building our organization the right way and putting the right pieces into place, I have every confidence that we're going to have attendance that is equal to teams like the Brewers."
In the interim, Coonelly was asked, why not engage in some deficit spending -- assuming that is necessary -- given the public's 17-year hunger for a winner?
"Because we tried that once and failed, when we moved into the new stadium," he replied, referring to PNC Park's opening in 2001 that saw a franchise-record $57 million payroll but a 62-100 season lowlighted by free agent Derek Bell's "Operation Shutdown. "That club tried to follow the Cleveland/Baltimore model of significantly raising payroll and hoping to build a winner that way. It didn't work, and the organization lost tens of millions of dollars and was forced to make bad baseball decisions to move payroll it couldn't afford."
Those Pirates lost $30 million early this decade and, by all accounts, traded talented third baseman Aramis Ramirez in 2003 for that reason.
"We need to build a strong core first, then add to it or retain our own players," Coonelly said. "Just like the Brewers."
The Pirates have been profitable the past five years and probably will be again in 2009, though they might be cutting it close given flat attendance and the sagging economy.
Coonelly, again without divulging numbers, laughed off estimates by Forbes Magazine that the team made $15.9 million last year. Forbes has no access to any professional leagues' or teams' books when it produces its annual estimates.
Coonelly also reiterated that the team's financial position is strong enough that it will not influence baseball moves.
Perhaps one reason the fans in Milwaukee had faith in those fledgling Brewers five years ago was that they never saw part of the core traded away, as the Pirates did with Nate McLouth last month.
Why would someone in Pittsburgh believe in the Pirates' current core, if the widely held belief is that, say, Andrew McCutchen will not play in Pittsburgh for very long?
"Our plan includes retaining the key elements of the organization for as long as we possibly can, and Andrew McCutchen is certainly a key element," Coonelly replied. "We are much closer to being at a point in our progression where we won't need to take valuable assets like a Xavier Nady, Jason Bay or McLouth and trade those assets at potentially their highest value in exchange for several prospects. We're very close. I can't foresee a scenario in which Andrew McCutchen will wear any uniform other than a Pirates uniform for a long, long time."