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PirateFest turns into lovefest

| Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013, 4:54 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Jonathan Rossano, 8, of Martins Ferry, Ohio, climbs through a pile of PirateFest grab bags during PirateFest on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker signs a baseball for Alex Dini (right), 14, of Dormont during PirateFest on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013, at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Downtown.

Making the playoffs this year did more for the Pirates than snap a long losing skid and put more money in the coffers. It also made the annual PirateFest a lot warmer and fuzzier.

In previous years, the event's “Ask Pirates Management” segment has been marked by pointed questions and even angry outbursts by fans. This year was different.

About a dozen season-ticket holders Saturday morning gave general manager Neal Huntington and president Frank Coonelly a standing ovation at the start of the hourlong Q&A session. Many of the questions began with expressions of gratitude for this past season, when the Pirates won 94 games and made the playoffs for the first time since 1992.

“We are not the homecoming opponent on anyone's schedule anymore,” manager Clint Hurdle said, which cued loud applause.

Still, there was tension in the room when a fan asked about the 2014 player payroll.

Coonelly noted that the club has increased payroll by about $10 million in each of the past three seasons. The figure has gone from $34.9 million in 2010 to $75 million in 2013.

For the 2014 season, Coonelly said the cash allocated for salaries would “go up in a similar way as in the past few years.”

The mood got a bit testy — at one point, Coonelly and the fan began interrupting each other — when the fan asked if payroll would be even higher if the Pirates had a more lucrative local TV contract.

Neither the Pirates nor Root Sports has revealed the yearly or total values of their 10-year deal, which expires in 2019. A Tribune-Review investigation found the team received about $18 million from Root in 2012. This past October, Bloomberg reported the Pirates ranked 28th among the 30 major league clubs by generating $56 million via local and national media rights.

“Those numbers are incorrect,” Coonelly said, without providing specific data. “Our TV contract places us in the top half of baseball. We are well-positioned moving forward.”

At the recently completed MLB Winter Meetings, the Pirates re-signed shortstop Clint Barmes for $2 million and right-hander Edinson Volquez for $5 million. Huntington still is seeking a first baseman — although the free agent market is depleted at this point — and continues to wait for A.J. Burnett to say whether he wants to pitch in 2014.

“It's completely on A.J. right now,” Huntington said. “We've worked hard with him ... and we're still waiting.”

Money could be part of the reason for Burnett's continued silence. The Pirates refused to make him a $14 million qualifying offer and seem inclined to offer no more than $10 million. Burnett made $16.5 million this past season.

Huntington confirmed the Pirates were bidders for free agent first baseman James Loney, who on Friday agreed to a three-year, $21 million deal with the Tampa Bay Rays. In this case, the length of contract was a sticking point. The Pirates weren't comfortable going beyond a two-year offer.

“We just haven't found the right trade or free agent opportunity yet,” Huntington said.

Notes: Huntington indicated free agent Kendrys Morales is not an option, as Morales has limited experience at first base. Also, signing him would cost the Pirates a draft pick because the Seattle Mariners made Morales a qualifying offer. ... What about moving Pedro Alvarez across the diamond? “It's been talked about,” Huntington said. “But it's not easy to replace Pedro at third base. Our best spot might be to leave him there.” ... PirateFest will run from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday at David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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