Pirates battle perception, plus painful reality
left to right, Pirates owner Bob Nutting, general manager Neal Huntington and president Frank Coonelly.
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PHILADELPHIA -- The woebegone Pittsburgh Baseball Club will take to frozen, windswept Wrigley Field in Chicago this afternoon to open its 125th season. And, given the many glum forecasts, the stage is set for another summer-long chill.
So, what's the point?
Better yet, what's the plan?
To hear and read the opinions of many in Pittsburgh, from Web chats to water coolers, the Pirates are focused primarily on profit, never will compete within Major League Baseball's economics, are destined to lose all their promising young players, and simply exist from year to year with no finish line in sight.
Talk about glum.
The Post-Gazette took 10 popularly expressed views about the Pirates and challenged, through a series of interviews, their top three men -- owner Bob Nutting, president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington -- to address whether those are myth or reality:
This is, by far, the most common criticism.
Nutting became controlling owner in 2007, though he and his family have been adding equity in the team for more than a decade, and he has become the lightning rod. Fans and pundits charge him with being in the business only to make money, and theories abound as to the amount of money and what is done with it, though none has come close to being proven.
Nutting, though visible and accessible in his role as owner, has been reluctant for years to discuss the personal impact of all the criticism, but he made an exception when being interviewed Wednesday.
"I really can't express adequately how upsetting, frustrating, angering, embarrassing the last several years have been," Nutting said. "Obviously, I haven't expressed that very effectively because, clearly, there are some people who question how much I really do passionately care and about how much it hurts to see the team fall as short as it did, capped off with last year."
The 2010 Pirates went 57-105, their worst record in 58 years and the worst in the majors.
"Those were agonizing games, agonizing days," Nutting said. "But I'm always reluctant to try to express that because I don't ever want have it come across as whining or complaining. I'm incredibly fortunate to be in this position, at the head of a great, historic baseball club. But there are brutal, agonizing days."
The Pirates have made a profit every year since 2003, and they have had a losing record every year since 1992, so criticism that the team profits while losing is indisputably accurate.
The Pirates' stance is that they will not engage in deficit spending because that can jeopardize the future and, thus, they are not willing to lose money -- even temporarily -- to hasten the return of winning baseball.
Owners in Cincinnati and Milwaukee, the Pirates' market-size peers in the National League Central Division, have taken their player payrolls above $70 million the past two seasons while the Pirates have stayed below $50 million. The approach in those two cities has been to commit to payroll now, even if that means briefly going into the red, then reap the rewards later. Both should be contenders this year.
The Pirates made profits of $15 million in 2007, $14.4 million in 2008, $5.4 million in 2009, and the figure from last year -- though not divulged -- is believed to have been little different than the previous year. The team stated at the time that, aside from a $20.4 million payment in 2008 to cover owners' taxes, every penny of profit has gone to baseball operations.
Bud Selig, MLB's commissioner, said in August that no other team nor the players' union had ever come to him to complain about the Pirates' spending. A little more than a year ago, when the union had concerns about Florida's spending, it investigated the Marlins and, as a result, their payroll increased.
Neither Nutting nor Coonelly wished to discuss the Pirates' financial figures after both did so last summer when documents were leaked to media outlets. But Nutting did address the $43.9 million payroll of the roster that will take the field today, a figure that will be fourth-lowest in baseball.
"The payroll is driven much more by where we are in the cycle of development of these players," Nutting said. "But the huge difference between where we are today and where we were a few years ago is that we really do have the players we've chosen to be in those spots. We're not being squeezed into trades or other moves because of financial limitations. Our plan is underway."
The Reds and Brewers might have exceeded the bar for markets their size, but not by much. Thus, that bar is set for where the Pirates should be spending if PNC Park can better maximize revenues, probably in the $70 million range.
But some look at the Pirates' $5.4 million profit from 2009, combined with the team's $44 million payroll that year, and wonder if that is realistic.
"We can and will be able to have a payroll in that range," Coonelly said.
"Do we have challenges that the Yankees and Red Sox don't? Of course," Nutting said. "But, if I didn't believe we had both the resources and the resource-appropriate plan, and I didn't believe we had a good opportunity to have success on the field, I wouldn't be doing it. I strongly believe that it's never going to be absolute dollars but, instead, how we deploy the dollars we do have throughout our system."
Baseball's biggest spenders tend to be perennial contenders, but lower spenders do compete: The Tampa Bay Rays, with a $41 million payroll and a strong minor-league system, are expected again to play on par with the Yankees and Red Sox. Even the Royals, whose success and spending are currently at the Pirates' level, have a system that is considered baseball's best in many years and are expected to contend soon.
Coonelly created a fuss this winter when, in an interview with a local blogger, he reiterated the Pirates' long-held plan that payroll will rise as attendance rises. Many interpreted that as an arrogant ultimatum, that nothing would be done to improve the product until there were more customers.
The way Coonelly had expressed that beforehand -- and what he repeated Wednesday -- was that the first step of the process was the Pirates putting "a good, exciting team on the field," then hoping for bigger attendance, then using the additional revenue to raise payroll.
"We're the ones who need to put a competitive product on the field and earn our fans' trust," Coonelly said. "That's on us. That's on me."
In baseball's revenue-sharing system, the Pirates are among the biggest beneficiaries, receiving an annual check in the range of $35 million. That money is collected from wealthier teams and distributed to the have-nots, and regulations require that the money is spent on making the team more competitive.
One common perception is that the Pirates have no motivation to grow their business because thoser revenue-sharing checks would dwindle.
Coonelly said that the only way the Pirates' revenue-sharing check would decrease is if the rest of baseball were to see flat revenues while the Pirates experienced a significant gain. Flat revenues across the board are highly unlikely in the constantly growing world of professional sports.
And, even if the Pirates were to have a smaller revenue-sharing check, Coonelly said the difference "would not be anything close to the increase in revenue. We have a tremendous incentive to grow revenue, and we work every day to do that."
Another perception is that the Pirates' young players will be leaving town shortly to sign for huge dollars with the New York Yankees or some other rich team. But baseball, for all its inequities, allows teams to control players' rights for six full years before free agency, longer than the NFL or NHL.
Among the Pirates' four best young players, center fielder Andrew McCutchen cannot become free agents until 2015. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez, second baseman Neil Walker and left fielder Jose Tabata cannot do so until 2016. None has received a contract extension yet, mostly because none is needed in that time.
"We're a long, long way from having to worry about free agency for those four players," Huntington said.
As for keeping those players into free-agency years, making them lifelong Pirates in the mold of Roberto Clemente or Willie Stargell, Nutting and Coonelly tread lightly.
"In today's environment, players do move to multiple teams over their careers," Nutting said. "Would it be more fun if some of our best players to have that same kind of career commitment and have that connection to the community, to the fans? Absolutely. I don't know how tangible that can be in today's economic system, but it would be a fantastic result."
Five or six years of those position players -- plus others on the way, such as catching prospect Tony Sanchez -- still begs the question: What about pitching?
The Pirates' best pitching prospects --Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia and Stetson Allie -- are 20 or younger, and might be several years away.
"We've got a lot of pitchers ready to cut their teeth in the majors later this season," Huntington said. "It's not like we've got a six-year gap separating our pitchers from our position-player group. The misunderstanding about our pitching is that it's all 16-19 years old. The reality is that we're pleased with Rudy Owens, Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson and Brad Lincoln, who are much closer."
That is largely true at the major-league level, as evidenced by the payroll. The top salary given to any free agent since this management took over in 2007 was the $5 million of new first baseman Lyle Overbay.
The Pirates' counter is that they have been the top spender in the majors over the past three drafts at a total of $30.6 million, including the franchise-record $6.5 million on Taillon. They also ranked fourth in spending $5 million on international free agents, including the record $2.6 million for Heredia.
The combined $16.9 million the Pirates spent on the draft and international players was tops in baseball.
"We've built a deeper, more talented farm system," Huntington said. "And we need to keep investing aggressively in that, even as we start winning more and our payroll starts to mature."
The Pirates will pick No. 1 overall in June, and the top two prospects -- Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon and UCLA pitcher Gerrit Cole -- are being advised by super-agent Scott Boras, who tends to get top dollar for his clients. That could cost more than $10 million.
"We're prepared to pay whatever is necessary to secure not only the first pick in the country but also to keep pursuing talent later in the draft, as we've done," Coonelly said.
Nutting said he plans to meet with the Pirates' scouting director, Greg Smith, in two weeks to discuss the draft and to ensure Smith knows he has the owner's backing.
"I want to make sure we have crystal-clear direction on this," Nutting said. "This is a unique opportunity."
The highest salary for any free agent in the Pirates' history was outfielder Jeromy Burnitz's $6.7 million in 2006, and the next highly paid free-agent pitcher they sign will be the first.
Coonelly rejected the notion that the team never will sign an impact player, but he shows reservations.
"It's very expensive to go into free agency to fill holes," he said. "The perfect world is that we don't have any holes because we've done such a good job with scouting and development that we have players coming through the system. But we know there will be times when we need to fill a need. And could it be an impact player? Yes."
Huntington raised eyebrows this winter with a comment that the Pirates cannot afford to be signing "a middle-of-the-rotation starter or even an everyday player." That was especially odd coming less than two months after he signed Kevin Correia, a middle-of-the-rotation starter for San Diego last season, and Lyle Overbay, an everyday first baseman for Toronto last season.
Coonelly, who makes the final call on such decisions, clarified: "We can't be in a position where we need to add legitimate No. 1 starters and middle-of-the-lineup bats through free agency. That's extraordinarily expensive, and it makes it difficult for us to retain our core players. A true ace is looking for a seven-year contract with a salary of $20 million. If that player isn't productive for you, that's a lot of your payroll."
There is only one way for the Pirates to address this one, of course.
Huntington is entering the final year of his contract, and the work he began remains very much incomplete. But he expresses unprecedented enthusiasm for the 2011 team and what it could represent.
"This is the first time I've gone into a season excited about our major-league team," he said. "Our first year, there was a little uneasiness about where we were going. If that team had shown us it was ready to compete, we were ready to add to it. It didn't, and we knew the transition had begun."
That was when Huntington traded away nearly all of the veterans in an attempt to build up the system. That met with dubious results, but the drafts have been productive.
"Last year, we knew the guys were on their way from the minors," Huntington said of Alvarez, Walker and Tabata. "This year, we go in believing. They're here. And there's another group behind them."
"You're going to see exciting players and real development," Nutting said. "Just having Pedro, Jose and Neil with the team for the whole year is going to be fun. I think we're going to be much improved."
Coonelly has shunned timetables in describing the team's plan, but his frustration was visible last year.
"The plan is to build a winner in Pittsburgh and to do it as quickly as possible," he said. "That means building a strong foundation, one that can sustain success over a long time. And that takes patience. It's not easy to have that. Certainly, our patience has been tried as we've struggled mightily at the major-league level. But that's what we've had to do. We need to get it right this time."
First Published April 1, 2011 12:00 am