Gene Collier: America wants to see your Pirates


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So much changed for the Pirates in 2013 the totality of it is sometimes hard to process, so I’m just going to illustrate the impact by yanking out this one little news item from a winter in which little news is the only news coming out of the club’s Federal Street executive suites.

Maybe you missed it, but May 11, the Pirates will perform on “Sunday Night Baseball.”

No seriously.

Pirates, Cardinals, 8:05 p.m., ESPN.

Don’t tell me that hasn’t happened in a month of Sundays because it’s actually closer to a year of Sundays. It will be the first “Sunday Night Baseball” telecast from PNC Park, a special occasion that will put the lie to unconfirmed suspicions that, given a choice, national television never would cover breaking Pirates action without an accompanying map of Somalia.

America wants to see the Pittsburgh Pirates, at long last, because the Pirates have the National League’s Most Valuable Ellen Show Marriage Proposer in Andrew McCutchen, the manager of the year in Clint Hurdle, so much young talent that Baseball America is about to anoint them the organization thickest with legitimate prospects, a newly recovered winning image, and a still-fresh list of positive indicators that no longer begins and ends with the most beautiful ballpark in America.

The Pirates this week shuffled three other games on the 2014 schedule into position for national television, including the opener March 31 against the Chicago Cubs from 1:35 to 1:05, so don’t stroll in from Mullen’s at 1:30 expecting to see A.J. Burnett deliver the first pitch.

In fact — and this is where Pirates imagery looks a little drearier than it does from the outside looking in — don’t expect to see Burnett at all. He made $16.5 million in 2013, half of it from the New York Yankees, and the Pirates plainly aren’t interested in carrying anything like that load alone.

Which is not to say they shouldn’t.

I believe it was team president Frank Coonelly who barked at PirateFest that estimates putting the club’s annual local TV income in the $18 million to $20 million neighborhood were, again, not even close, and that in fact the Pirates were “well-positioned” and “in the top half.”

Really?

Then pay A.J. Burnett $16.5 million for one more year, because if nothing else, that would be the first indication that management takes its newfound status as the operators of a legitimate pennant contender seriously. That $21 million it guaranteed for three more years of Charlie Morton was prudent, but it didn’t exactly push the payroll near the luxury-tax threshold.

Burnett, of course, isn’t the only puzzle piece lost in the couch cushions of Bob Nutting’s financial portfolio since previously we saw the Pirates on the field, or when they became the final team to appear in the National League Division Series.

Marlon Byrd is gone along with Garrett Jones and Justin Morneau, leaving conspicuous structural defects in the product, evidenced by right-field and first-base fissures.

General manager Neal Huntington, who should have been named executive of the year and might soon wish he were working for someone with a “top-half” payroll, should stop saying he regards Gaby Sanchez as part of a first-base solution. It’s true that Sanchez posts a great OPS against left-handed pitching, but opponents trying their level best to avoid putting left-hander into the McCutchen-Starling Marte-Russell Martin ringer shouldn’t be too concerned with Gaby, 30, a first baseman who never has hit 20 homers.

The Pirates have enough pitching depth and organizational depth, as well as enough “top-half” cash to coax Ike Davis away from the New York Mets, but don’t wait up for that, either. Davis failed spectacularly in 2013 in New York, but he’s only a bad year removed from his 32-homer, 90-RBI season of 2012. Baltimore, Milwaukee and Tampa Bay have talked with the Mets about Davis, as have the Pirates, but nothing has changed, and the Rays went ahead and overspent on James Loney.

Pirates management was willing to bet $5 million that pitcher Edinson Volquez will be this year’s Francisco Liriano, who rebounded from a terrible season to nearly win the Cy Young Award in 2013 under the spell of pitching coach Ray Searage. If anyone can put pitching miracles back-to-back, it is Searage, but the smarter money seems to be headed toward the Pirates eventually paying Volquez about $1 million per win this year, or more.

While the defending National League wild-card champions are trading marginal prospects in the bargain aisles of the market, the Seattle Mariners were giving Robinson Cano $240 million, the Texas Rangers were giving Shin-soo Choo $130 million, the Yankees were giving Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann $238 million, and Comcast was re-fitting the Philadelphia Philllies with a local TV deal worth $2.5 billion.

Billion.

Wonder if that bumped your Bucs out of the top half?


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.

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