Nutting: Pirates' payroll to rise as roster matures

Says $75M range of Brewers, Reds is 'where Pittsburgh needs to be'

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SEVEN SPRINGS, Pa. -- A year ago, at the opening of the Pirates' Winter Caravan promotional tour here, the franchise's controlling owner, Bob Nutting, said of his expectations for 2009, "We're not going to accept an inferior performance," and he pledged accountability.

The team's record fell from 67-95 to 62-99, and it grew worse after several veteran-for-prospect trades in June and July. Management and coaching staff remained almost entirely untouched.

The Post-Gazette met with Nutting again yesterday at the Seven Springs resort he owns for another interview that covered that topic, as well as:

• Opening-day payroll, projected to drop to $35.6 million.

• Whether payroll will ever increase to the level of division and market peers in Milwaukee and Cincinnati, each now in the range of $75 million.

• Confidence in team president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington, his hires in late 2007.

• The Pirates' failure to sign top Latin American prospect Miguel Angel Sano last summer.

• Whether the Pirates are at risk of being pushed to spend more by Major League Baseball and the players' union, as occurred last month with Florida.

Question: A good place to start would be with your expectations for the coming season, same question as last year.

Answer: Well, we're in a very different position than this time last year, but I'm enthusiastic about 2010.

If you look at the moves that were made, with talent coming in at every level, then you look at the impact that talent will have in Pittsburgh in 2010 and beyond, that's encouraging. From there, if you look at the veteran additions Frank and Neal made, it was very strategic and, I think, very effective. They brought in support where the young team was going to need some help.

Q: You almost have to view 2009 as a bottoming out, don't you?

You can't keep hovering around 62 or so wins and see that as progress, right?

A: Oh, absolutely. We are going to win more games than last year. We are going to see improvement on the field in Pittsburgh, in terms of wins and loses. We have to.

I said last year that was my expectation and, midway through the season, we clearly weren't seeing that. And the team took decisive action, made change. That's part of why you have the broader pool from which the pieces will come for 2010 and moving forward.

Q: Can we expect to see accountability beyond changing the roster?

A: I think, just as you saw accountability at the player level last year, ultimately, my job is very simple: It's to set the level of expectation to win games in Pittsburgh, period. And my tool to do that is to hold people accountable to reach this goal.

I think I've done that effectively so far, and I believe everyone in the organization understands that the expectation is high.

Q: You've expressed confidence in Frank and Neal, notably calling them "the single best management team in all of baseball, maybe in all of sports" a couple summers ago ...

A: And I've never backed away from that comment.

Q: That's what I wanted to ask.

A: I need to believe in and support them. If I ever don't believe in the team, we'll replace the team. We'll make changes. We've made changes along the way.

Pittsburgh needs to have extraordinarily capable leaders who are focused on the process and driving the team forward. That's what we need to compete, to win.

Q: When you see some of these prospects about to come up -- Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Brad Lincoln -- what's your view of the talent pool that could be in Pittsburgh at some point in 2010?

A: Clearly, we have more depth, more options. And what I'm thrilled about is that Neal has the time and opportunity to make good baseball decisions to be able to pull people up when it's appropriate to the player's development.

Do we have enough talent?

Absolutely not.

We need another great draft. We've had two good ones, and we need to do it again. And again and again. With international signings, we need to keep our focus on that ball, as well. We need to continue to bring in talent at the bottom every way we possibly can, so those options are available in 2010 and, hopefully, those choices become more and more difficult every year.

Q: You mention international signings. Minnesota ended up signing Sano for a $3.15 million bonus, and the Pirates' final offer was $2.6 million. Did you authorize that the team could spend in the range of the Twins?

Or was your final offer it?

A: It [Sano's bonus with Minnesota] was comfortably within the range of what we could have paid.

Q: I understand that the opening-day payroll figure can increase as the season goes along but, at the same time, it's probably going to end up down from the $48 million of last year.

What went into your thinking?

A: First of all, I think it's never going to be about the total dollars we spend as much as how effectively we put them to use.

Part of the reason for the payroll level is that we have young players, and it is normal, expected and natural that, as those players mature, those dollars are going to have to come up. That certainly is my expectation.

But I think we've shown good discipline in building this 2010 team, in that there is lots of flexibility that Neal still has. He's building the team that he thinks will perform best for the coming year but also can still succeed going forward.

Q: So, Neal can spend more than what we see right now?

A: Absolutely.

Q: Why not, some might say, just take some heat off yourself and have a $50 million-$55 million payroll?

A: Well, what I really believe is that we've put in place an orderly, systematic plan, and the last thing we can do is divert from that plan or change it, as I've seen done before in Pittsburgh and with other clubs. I believe that the decisions being made are giving the team the best opportunity to compete this year, as well as going forward. I don't want to do anything that handicaps that.

Look, some of the trades we've made ... would it have been easier not to do those?

Of course it would have.

But I really believe we're going in the right direction and that we're being driven by baseball decisions, not financial ones.

Q: So, your expectation remains that, if this group becomes competitive, you will be able to someday spend at the level of the Brewers and Reds?

A: I think that's expected. I think it's rational. I think it's where Pittsburgh needs to be.

And we're in that trajectory now. As you see our current core of players -- one I have faith in -- as they mature, the dollars are going to increase. If that needs to be supplemented, we need to have the flexibility to be able to do that.

Q: You can understand where the general public can look at the payroll with frustration?

A: Again, I understand the focus on that single number. I also strongly believe that is not the right indicator for organization performance or strength. You need to look at our commitments top to bottom, the foundation we've built.

Q: Do you have any expectation that what just happened with the Marlins could happen to the Pirates?

A: I really can't speak to the Marlins' situation, but what I can say is that, in Pittsburgh, I'm very comfortable that what we're doing is in the best interest of the team. We're using our revenue-sharing dollars appropriately, and we're building a program to improve on-field performance, which is the goal of revenue-sharing.

Q: So, you have no reason to think the Pirates are next in that regard?

A: Again, I can't speak to what the union might do, or the commissioner's office. But I'm comfortable that we're moving in an appropriate direction. We're using our dollars correctly, efficiently and well. And we're going to continue moving down that path.

Q: What would you consider a successful 2010?

A: Honestly, I won't be satisfied with any season until we win a championship. Incremental improvement might be encouraging at some level but, in terms of what's satisfactory ... I'll be pleased with a championship season.


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at PBC Blog .


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