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Kovacevic: Separating Nutting myth/reality

| Friday, May 23, 2014, 12:08 a.m.

The Pittsburgh Baseball Club's tormented fan base is probably unlike any in sports, certainly unlike any locally. It's passionate yet paranoid, dedicated yet distrusting, capable of cheering and jeering in the same breath with the same conviction.

All of which, if you ask me, is wonderful. It means that this 128-year-old franchise, one of our great civic institutions, is vibrant as ever. People care. They're invested. Even after two decades of failure.

But man alive, can this city lose its collective mind when things don't go well for the Pirates, with conspiracies, myths, narratives, outright lies … pretty much anything other than, hey, these guys aren't playing very well.

Let's review the latest …

Myth: Bob Nutting has ordered his front office to keep Gregory Polanco, the 22-year-old phenom, in the minors.

Reality: I took the daring step of, you know, actually asking Nutting about that Thursday. His direct response was that he's had no input on Polanco, adding, “I have a tremendous amount of trust in our baseball operations staff, their ability and the process to make the right decisions for the future of all our players.”

Myth: Of course Nutting would say that. He's secretly funneling orders via masked courier to 115 Federal St.

Reality: Asked Frank Coonelly, team president, if he were giving any such orders. His response: “Like all baseball decisions, such as when a player is promoted to the 25-man roster, those are made by baseball operations. Gregory Polanco's path is no different.”

Myth: This is all about the money, the fact that Polanco would be eligible for Super-2 arbitration status if he comes up before mid-June, and the Pirates should just say so.

Reality: I do believe it is about the money, at least mostly. I've written that all along. But neither the Pirates nor any other team can say so. If they did, the players union would come down on them with full force. That's why you'll never hear any team — and most avoid Super-2 — admit it publicly.

Myth: This is outrageous. It's unprecedented.

Reality: Sure, except for, oh, Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Gerrit Cole. I supported all those cases, too.

Myth: Promoting Polanco would only cost an extra couple million. Big deal.

Reality: Not close. There can't be an exact figure, but history shows that all four of a Super-2 players' salaries during the arbitration years rise based off the previous year. Internally, the estimate for an elite player's extra cost in that case — and if Polanco isn't elite, no point in having this discussion — is $15 million. That's for just two months.

Myth: Come on. Anyone can throw any number out.

Reality: In May 2006, the Phillies called up Cole Hamels just two weeks before they could have avoided Super-2. The team's baseball side pushed, and the business side relented. Well, Hamels made three starts that ultimately cost Philadelphia $17 million over his arbitration years, per one industry insider. And that was a half-decade ago.

Myth: Yeah, yeah, Nutting is why Polanco isn't here.

Reality: Nutting's the only reason Polanco is about to be here. It was his initiative to ramp up the Pirates' scouting in Latin America, to build the Dominican academy and to support top scout Rene Gayo that produced Polanco.

Myth: The Pirates didn't raise payroll from last season.

Reality: The only payroll figure that counts is actual dollars spent at season's end. Total cost of the 40-man roster in 2013 was $74,608,266, per MLB accounting. That figure for the current season won't be known until December. At the moment, the Pirates' own numbers show they are at roughly $79.7 million. That's highly likely to rise, through new player acquisitions — Ike Davis, for example, added $3.5 million since that mid-April trade — as well as September callups and other variables.

Myth: The Pirates made a killing since last season with extra attendance, TV ratings, merchandise, parking, etc.

Reality: The increase in PNC Park crowds from 2012 to 2013 was a total of 164,944. With an average ticket price of $17.21 last season — third cheapest in baseball, per Team Marketing Report — that netted an additional $2.8 million at the gate. Which is nice, but it barely pays for a middle reliever. TV ratings are nice, too, but all that extra cash goes to Root Sports. All merchandise profits are split evenly among the 30 teams. And the Pirates' parking revenue always is zero. They neither own nor operate any lots or garages.

Myth: They didn't try to keep A.J. Burnett.

Reality: They placed a $12 million offer on the table and left it there well after spending $5 million on Edinson Volquez to fill out the rotation. Most free-agent offers have a very short shelf life. This one sat there for months and would have made Burnett, at age 36 and with creeping health issues, the highest-salaried player in franchise history.

Myth: The Pirates are too cheap to prioritize the present.

Reality: Wandy Rodriguez.

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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