A decade ago: Spending money to make money

A lost talent

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.

Author: Matt Bandi

Matt has covered the Pirates at Wait ‘Til Next Year, Pittsburgh Lumber Co. and now Pirates Prospects. He served as Pirates team expert for Heater Magazine in 2009 and 2010 and has contributed to Graphical Player 2009, 2010 and 2011. Matt was also the editor of the 2011 and 2012 Pirates Prospects Annuals.

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  • Anonymous

    I think you bloggers blew it this time. This is the one time and probably last time, FC would have a frank talk with you guys. Bloggers obviously understood what he’s up to (no one mentioned anything negative until DK did), but just not the general public.

    Blogs = 80% NH fans/cautiously optimistic types. General public = 80% BFD1 types.

    In a nutshell, FC should have known better than to open himself to being misunderstood.

    • Anonymous

      I think any time Coonelly or NH open their mouths they get criticized. People just don’t take the time to understand baseball. They don’t understand small markets in an uncapped league. There is a certain way things need to be done. So, fans see this “City of Champions” where the Pirates are failures and automatically criticize. It’s understandable why people would think this way, it is just naivety at the same time. I just wish people would use common sense and realize what this FO had to start with. No minor league system, a small market, and poor draft selections from past management. Literally nothing. Andrew McCutchen, that’s it. I think the FO deserves a lot of credit for where the team is now compared to where it used to be. We have pitching in the minors. When is the last time we can say that? There are some solid position player prospects. There is hope for the future, we just have to open our eyes and see what is in front of us.

  • Anonymous

    It is difficult to criticize an executive when the blogger depends on the largesse of the executive for access which allows him to get the interview in the first place. The same phenomenon grips the major media and reporters covering the President and Congress as well. I don’t see them as FO boosters or bashers. they are trying to do their job within the parameters that access to the top has created for them.

    As far as Coonelly’s quote goes, its obvious from a business perspective Nutting inherited a very poorly run organization with a budget that had to be cut. Right now the business model seems to be that they can make money and use the money to pay down debt regardless of the performance of the team. Pouring 20 million into the team without an attendance increase could result in nearly a 5 year setback financially, which to the Nuttings and most people is not worth the risk. From that perspective I don’t blame Coonelly Nutting and Hintington for their approach and I am happy money is going towards latin america and the draft. As a fan I wish they had a larger payroll, as a businessman I understand it.

  • Anonymous

    I think Pirate management is aware that the bashers will pounce on them no matter what they say, but the majority of the people that they reach understand what they are saying.
    There is one major news paper in Pittsburgh that has a few writers that seem to enjoy bashing the Pirates. Colin Dunlap seems to be fair, the rest of their writers really lay it on.
    You simply can’t buy something if you don’t have any money and owners do not buy players, revenue streams buy players, Pittsburgh will never have the revenue stream of the top money teams in baseball, so to get talent they have to develop it and that is exactly what they are doing, developing takes time if players are developed correctly.
    This should be the first year since Huntington has been here that he will be able to make a call to AAA and get a pitcher if he needs on versus signing an Eveland type.