The tone of the questions shifted Saturday, even if the content remained the same.
Fans grilled Pirates president Frank Coonelly about the team’s television contract with Root Sports and questioned general manager Neal Huntington about the Pirates’ first-base options in the “Ask Pirates Management” portion of PirateFest at David L. Lawrence Convention Center. This year, though, many fans prefaced their questions by thanking Coonelly, Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle for helping the Pirates return to the playoffs in 2013.
“I believe in and admire all three of you,” one fan said. Another ended his question with “Neal, you’re my idol.”
Coonelly defended the TV deal with Root Sports in response to a question about whether the contract contained a clause allowing re-negotiation. Coonelly also said the Pirates’ revenue of $18 million to $20 million per year, a figure that has been reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and other media outlets, was “not even close to the right number.”
“Our TV contract places us in the top half of all Major League Baseball clubs even though our market ranks 27th out of 30,” Coonelly said. “We are well positioned moving forward.”
Coonelly also said the payroll would continue to increase at a rate similar to that of the past three years. According to calculations by The Associated Press, the Pirates finished 2010 with a $44.1 million payroll. That rose to $51.8 million at the end of 2011 and $61.3 million in 2012. The Pirates opened 2013 with an $80 million payroll, roughly $13 million of which came from other teams. The AP has not released its 2013 final payroll figures.
The Pirates have $53.75 million committed to 10 players for 2014. The six arbitration-eligible players will add another $15 million or so by conservative estimates, and the final nine players receiving salaries at or near the $500,000 major league minimum will add around $5 million. The rest of the 40-man roster will increase the payroll to about $75 million, with the Houston Astros paying $5.5 million of that for Wandy Rodriguez.
“We’ll be up again next year,” Coonelly said. “We’ll continue to reinvest the dollars that we generate and that you provide for this organization into the club.”
A few of the questions concerned first base, which at this point is Gaby Sanchez’s job entering 2014. The best remaining free-agent option, James Loney, agreed to terms with the Tampa Bay Rays Friday for three years and $21 million.
“We are exploring the trade market,” Huntington said. “We do feel good about our options out there. We were in on James Loney. We felt it was a little bit beyond where our comfort level was, given our young team, given where we are going forward.”
The Pirates would need to trade for the most attractive first basemen: the Toronto Blue Jays’ Adam Lind, the New York Mets’ Ike Davis, the Seattle Mariners’ Justin Smoak and the Texas Rangers’ Mitch Moreland.
Huntington reiterated the team’s stance on pitcher A.J. Burnett: If he wants to come back, they will have him back, but right now he hasn’t made up his mind.
“In A.J.’s situation, it’s completely A.J. Burnett right now,” Huntington said. “Does he want to pitch again next year, and does he want to pitch in Pittsburgh? We’ve worked hard to be patient with A.J. We’ve worked hard to work through the process with him.”
Burnett, 36, has not informed the team whether he will retire, re-join the Pirates or sign elsewhere. The Pirates signed right-hander Edinson Volquez in case Burnett does not return.
“We’ve added a starting pitcher in case A.J decides not to come back, but we’ve kept that door wide open to him,” Huntington said.
Hurdle said the Pirates have a plan to improve their offensive efficiency. The Pirates’ 3.91 runs per game and .313 on-base percentage ranked below the National League average in 2013.
“We’ve got staples in place and a game plan already put in place, which we’ll put in place in spring training,” Hurdle said.
Bill Brink: email@example.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.