It is late February and spring training games are about to begin. It is a wonderful time of the year, a time for “Player X is in the best shape of his life” stories and reports on bullpen sessions and rundown drills. And, most importantly, optimism reigns supreme in both Florida and Arizona.
At least, I suppose that is probably an accurate description of most Major League Baseball towns across America. In Pittsburgh, late February is a much different time. In Pittsburgh, it is time to overanalyze every public statement made by Pirates management and twist it into something that angers us. I understand. The Pirates have disappointed their fans for many, many years, making it easy to fume when Bob Nutting or Frank Coonelly speaks to the press, regardless of what they are saying. However, the easy reaction is not necessarily the rational reaction.
Recently, Coonelly was shoved under the microscope due to a response in his Pirates Prospects interview with Kevin Creagh.
Kevin: Would the Pirates be able to afford a $70M to $80M payroll, in present-day worth, if this current group of players were competitive enough to merit additional outside free agents?
Frank: Today, no but we will be able to support that payroll very soon if our fans believe that we now have a group of players in Pittsburgh and on its way here in the near future that is competitive. We need to take a meaningful step forward in terms of attendance to reach that payroll number while continuing to invest heavily in our future but I am convinced that the attendance will move quickly once we convince our fans that we are on the right track.
This comment struck a nerve with some, and their thoughts are summarized pretty well in this post at Mondesi’s House.
Classic, classic Coonelly right there. That’s right Pittsburgh, after 18 years of flushing your hard-earned money down the drain in the hopes of Kris Benson, Kevin Young, and Bryan Bullington turning the team around, the responsibility is on YOU to fund a higher payroll.
Tim and Wilbur have already posted rebuttals to this position, clarifying how the stance misunderstands what Coonelly was trying to say. Personally, I would like to take a closer look at a time when the Pirates tried the “spend first, win and increase attendance second” approach. In 2000, the Pirates finished in fifth place with a record of 69-93. They had a team payroll around $26.5 million, ranked 27th in baseball. With the Pirates moving into PNC Park and with expectations for improved future attendance numbers, the front office increased payroll substantially. Brian Giles’ five-year, $45 million extension (signed in May 2000) kicked in for the 2001 season. Cam Bonifay signed Jason Kendall to a six-year, $60 million contract. Both contracts were reasonable commitments, as Giles and Kendall were legitimate stars at that point.
However, there was also substantial deadweight on the roster earning big bucks. Kevin Young was making over $6 million, despite putting up a .744 OPS as a 31-year-old first baseman with bad knees the previous season. Pat Meares, nearing the end of his multi-year battle with a career-destroying hand injury, was on the books for almost $3.8 million. Bonifay also signed Derek Bell to a two-year, $9 million deal in the offseason. Bell was a 32-year-old outfielder coming off a combined OPS of .717 the previous two seasons. Omar Olivares would make $4 million, and free agent Terry Mulholland cost the team $2.75 million. Overall, the 2001 payroll was a touch under $58 million, ranked a more respectable 18th in baseball. For a reference point, the 18th highest payroll in 2010 belonged to the Brewers, around $81 million.
The Pirates were trying to make a statement to their fans. They were investing heavily in the team, banking on revenue from increased future attendance at PNC Park. Unfortunately, it did not work out. Unsurprisingly, Bell was an awful addition. He battled injuries, and hit .173/.287/.288 in 183 plate appearances. Meanwhile, less expensive options Craig Wilson (.310/.390/.589 in 183 PA) and John Vander Wal (.278/.361/.473 in 360 PA) greatly outperformed him. Kendall hurt his thumb early in the year and played through the injury, leading to greatly reduced production that season and into the future. Just like that, his contract was an albatross. Despite the $58 million payroll and more than 2.4 million fans, the Pirates stumbled to 100 losses in PNC Park’s inaugural season.
With a reduced luster surrounding PNC Park the following season, attendance sagged to 1.8 million. The team’s payroll dropped a bit to $42 million, but it bounced back up to $55 million in 2003. The Pirates still were not winning, so attendance dropped even further that year, to 1.6 million. The team had attempted to spend first, win second, boost attendance/revenue third. They never got past step one, outside of the temporary attendance boost when PNC Park opened. As a result, they were in serious financial trouble in 2003. They had to shed payroll, and ended up giving Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton to the Chicago Cubs. The Nutting family even had to loan the team $20 million.
The Pirates made the first move a decade ago, taking the type of action many people have been calling for this week, in hopes that an attendance increase would follow. They subsequently lost a key 25-year-old third baseman, and most likely spent some years recovering from these financial issues behind closed doors. This is why Coonelly indicated that payroll will not move into the $70 – $80 million range until attendance rises and boosts revenue. The team should not be spending money it has not yet received. It is up to the front office to build a competitive team at a lower payroll before they should expect fans to start showing up, but most statements from management lead me to believe that they understand this.