Russell: Pirates' payroll will not be factor on field

Remains to be seen if MLB, union will make it issue later this year

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The Pirates will open PirateFest today with the unveiling of the model for the Bill Mazeroski statue, a tribute to the franchise's rich past.

The future?

That remains to be seen, of course. But the term "rich" hardly comes to mind, at least not in the spending sense: Given large signings this week by the Oakland Athletics and San Diego Padres, it is now virtually assured that the Pirates' projected opening-day payroll of $35.6 million will be the lowest in Major League Baseball.

That would mark the first time the Pirates hit the bottom since the 1997 "Freak Show" team spent $9 million and, stunningly, contended for a division title.

Will the payroll mark this group in any way, inside or outside the clubhouse?


If you go: PirateFest
  • What: 20th annual PirateFest.
  • Where: David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.
  • When: 5-9 p.m. today; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday; noon-5-p.m. Sunday.
  • Tickets: $12 for adults, $4 for age 14 and younger.
  • Autographs today: Bill Mazeroski, Steve Pearce, Joel Hanrahan, 5-5:30 p.m.; Andrew McCutchen, John Candelaria, Bob Friend, 5:30-7 p.m.; Paul Maholm, Bobby Crosby, Dick Groat, 7-8:30 p.m.
  • Autographs Saturday: Lastings Milledge, Andy LaRoche, Daniel McCutchen, 10-11:30 a.m.; Mazeroski, Crosby, Neil Walker, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.; Garrett Jones, Evan Meek, Kent Tekulve, 1-2:30 p.m.; Friend, ElRoy Face, Steve Blass, 2:30-4 p.m.; Maholm, Pearce, Candelaria, Andrew McCutchen, 4-5:30 p.m.; Ryan Doumit, Ross Ohlendorf, Hanrahan, 5:30-7 p.m.
  • Autographs Sunday: LaRoche, 10-11 a.m.; Milledge 11 a.m.-noon; Doumit, Charlie Morton, Face, noon-1:30 p.m.; Ohlendorf, Meek, Daniel McCutchen, 1:30-3 p.m.; Jim Rooker, Walker, Jones, 3-4:30 p.m.
  • Q&A sessions: Frank Coonelly, Neal Huntington and John Russell, 7-8 p.m. today; players and coaches, 3-4 p.m. Saturday; Coonelly, Huntington and Russell, 4-5 p.m. Saturday.
  • Youth clinics: Russell, hitting coach Don Long, Daniel McCutchen, 1-2 p.m. Saturday; Long, Hanrahan, noon-1 p.m. Sunday.

Not in the view of the man entrusted with guiding it.

"Payroll has never and will never be an issue with me," manager John Russell said Thursday. "Our talent level has increased tremendously over the past couple years. We are very much looking forward to moving forward with a very talented group of major league players, with very talented players on their way from our system. The players are looking forward to this season, too, and they know the talent we have."

Russell praised owner Bob Nutting, president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington.

"The support we have from Bob, Frank and Neal is unwavering, and they've made a solid commitment to where we are and where we are going. My goal as manager is to prepare our team daily for a chance to win that game. Now's the time to move forward to bringing championship baseball to Pittsburgh."

Russell and several of his players and coaches spent the past five days traveling across three states for the Pirates' promotional Winter Caravan, and they have been greeted by 500 to 600 fans at most stops.

"Caravan has been great," Russell said. "Fans are very excited about the upcoming season. They really like the shape of the team and the additions that were made this offseason."

Starter Charlie Morton, one of many newcomers in the trades last summer, described himself as "very proud to be part of the organization," based in part on the scenes on the Caravan.

He, too, dismissed any payroll effect.

"I haven't once looked up the payroll for our team. To me, it's irrelevant," Morton said. "We're being paid to do a job, and the expectations should and must be there, with or without a big payroll. I think we believe in the talent on the team regardless of what everyone makes."

"I think you consider yourself an underdog," third baseman Andy LaRoche said of a payroll effect. "But, obviously, you don't take the field thinking the other team is going to beat you. We can play with any team out there. We can beat any team out there. It's going to be a climb, but we feel like we've got the starting pitching and the young guys to surprise some people this year."

That sentiment is shared widely among the Pirates, even though entering 2010 with the lowest payroll and a 17-year losing streak promises to make the team even more of a public punch line, locally and nationally, than it already was.

What is not certain is whether it someday will make the team the target of an investigation from Major League Baseball and its players' union. That just occurred with Florida, resulting in the Marlins' agreement -- under pressure -- to spend more of their revenue-sharing monies on payroll.

This much is known: The Pirates, who spent nearly double the amount on payroll that Florida did in 2006-08, were not part of the investigation that covered only the Marlins. Also, nothing will be known about possible future investigations until after April 1, when teams file revenue-sharing statements for the previous fiscal year.

There has been speculation from two New York outlets that the Pirates are the next target, but, because no numbers exist yet, that could only be speculation. Moreover, the statements being filed April 1 cannot take into account any payroll decline for the coming season. The Pirates ended up spending slightly more than $48 million last season, and they are not expected to match that by the time this one ends.

One source directly involved in the Florida process told the Post-Gazette two weeks ago that the Pirates are not on any target list for the union. Nutting, in an interview Sunday with the Post-Gazette, said the team has been using its revenue-sharing dollars "appropriately."

No other team is on pace to open the season lower than $40 million: The Athletics' $10 million signing of free-agent starter Ben Sheets put them above $50 million. The Padres' $5.3 million signing of starter Jon Garland put them near $45 million. And the Marlins, perennially the bottom team in this category, will be near $45 million.


NOTES -- The Pirates released minor league starter Yoslan Herrera, a Cuban defector who in 2006 was signed to a three-year, guaranteed $1.92 million contract by then-general manager Dave Littlefield. He made five starts for the Pirates in 2008 and had a 9.82 ERA. ... Baseball America rated the Pirates' system 16th in baseball in its new Prospect Handbook. That is up two spots from last year.


Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at PBC Blog .


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