Nutting: Pirates must improve in 2009
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SEVEN SPRINGS, Pa. -- If Bob Nutting was shy about sending a signal to everyone associated with the Pirates, it hardly showed.
The team's owner was asked yesterday, as part of a joint interview with president Frank Coonelly on the opening day of the promotional Winter Caravan, how much of a priority it will be to have success in 2009 given that the franchise's clear focus is on the more distant future. And he responded with what might have been his strongest statement since taking control of ownership, two years ago to the day.
"There's no question that my expectation in 2009 is that we have a better team than we did last year," he said. "Even as we continue to build for the long-term success of the franchise, a real, championship-caliber organization that can compete on a sustainable basis, we have to have a better team in 2009 and better than what Pittsburgh has seen lately."
The Pirates finished 67-95 last season, the 16th losing record in a row.
"It could be the pitching coach," Nutting continued, referring to newcomer Joe Kerrigan. "It could be the expectations we have for conditioning. I think that's a real fundamental change that's going to give our players -- the young players who we're going to give a chance to play -- a better opportunity to succeed than they've had in the past. That's cultural, and that's attitude, but I really believe that it can have an impact. And, from my standpoint, I need to set the bar high enough that the entire organization knows that the expectation is to improve in 2009, not only in 2010 or 2011."
Nutting was asked to define his view of improvement, if that meant that a worse record would be acceptable even if certain individuals -- such as Nate McLouth, Ryan Doumit and Paul Maholm last season -- were to blossom and brighten the long-term future.
"No," he replied. "That would be a very disappointing year. As an organization, we have to continue to hold people accountable for improvement on the field at the major league level, as well as organization-wide. You saw it last year with Matt Morris. We're not going to accept an inferior performance."
The Pirates bought out the remainder of Morris' $10.04 million salary in April after he struggled immensely. Morris was acquired by previous general manager Dave Littlefield in a trade the previous summer, with Nutting's approval.
The accountability must extend to the top, for any sports franchise, and Nutting and Coonelly repeatedly have stated that they are no exceptions. It surely is worth noting, then, that the Pirates again will have one of Major League Baseball's lowest payrolls, with a ceiling in the range of $54 million, and have made only one noteworthy acquisition this offseason with the free-agent signing of 32-year-old utility infielder Ramon Vazquez.
To that end, Nutting and Coonelly each stressed that the Pirates will not veer off course off their oft-stated plan to build a formidable minor league system with an aim of competing perennially. And this year, as each acknowledged, that will include giving some younger or less experienced players such as third baseman Andy LaRoche and outfielder Nyjer Morgan a chance to have regular duty to see what they have for the future.
"We're not going to block the opportunity for bright, young players," Nutting said. "We've been criticized for that in the past, where you bring someone in and block a Freddy Sanchez."
That was a reference to Littlefield signing veteran free agent Joe Randa in 2006 and using him instead of Sanchez early in the same season Sanchez wound up winning the National League batting title.
"We have to continue on the plan we have," Nutting said. "We're moving in a very solid direction. But I'm in no way willing to say that doesn't mean we should get better in 2009."
"While we certainly have developed a scouting-development-centric plan, the most important game we play every night in our organization is in Pittsburgh," Coonelly said. "We really believe that we're in much better shape going into this year with our starting pitching, which was our Achilles' heel last year, now that we have Joe Kerrigan. And what makes 2009 exciting for me is seeing what these players we added in the deadline deals can do."
That includes LaRoche, Coonelly added, even though LaRoche batted .152 with three home runs in the two months after being acquired in the July 31 Jason Bay trade.
"In Andy's case, especially, with a lingering thumb injury that I think was worse than what he let on, to judge him on those two months doesn't make sense," Coonelly said. "You look at his time in the minor leagues, and this was an extraordinarily highly regarded prospect."
LaRoche, one of six players meeting fans on the Caravan this week, said the torn thumb ligament he sustained in spring training with the Los Angeles Dodgers is fully healed.
As for the Pirates' payroll, Nutting and Coonelly each spoke with pride that their ceiling will remain precisely where they set it late last summer, even as other teams in the majors are cutting -- some drastically -- in the face of the national economic crisis.
"We're taking a hard look at all of our expenses but, in terms of the major league payroll? We budgeted conservatively, a number we knew we could appropriately handle with our revenues, and we'll probably be right around where we said," Coonelly said.
A $54 million payroll would represent $3 million more than was spent last season.
"I think we're uniquely positioned to handle the downturn, and I think that's because Bob did really terrific work in getting the club in position where we could be on solid financial footing that we didn't have," Coonelly said. "We don't have to hope and pray that we'll exceed budget expectations in order to simply pay the bills. For any club to budget like that in a year like this would be extraordinarily dangerous."
Off the field, the Pirates' business appears to be weathering the economy better than that of some teams that recently have described dramatic drops in season tickets and other revenues. Coonelly said that season-ticket sales are going roughly as well as they did at the same point last year. The team finished with fewer than 9,000 full-season equivalents for 2008.
A large reason, Coonelly added, is a sizable discount in season plans, including a $399 full-season seat for the upper outfield decks. That is less than $5 a game, a price not seen since the team moved to PNC Park.
"We are tracking very well with last year in terms of renewal rates, but we're also pushing very hard for new season-ticket holders," he said. "We think things are heading in the right direction."
Part of the push for new buyers is the Caravan, which has been shortened from three to two weeks but expanded from 21 stops to an unprecedented 30 across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and West Virginia. The extra mileage is possible because the Pirates asked more players to participate and split them into two groups.
PirateFest, the annual weekend fan event at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, opens Friday.
"The Caravan and PirateFest give us a chance to show our fans we appreciate their continued support," Nutting said. "I think it makes a huge difference for people to see that we're there to talk to the fans and to share the excitement that we -- and I know I -- have for the 2009 season."
First Published January 19, 2009 12:00 am