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Kovacevic: Pirates cheap? Not anymore

| Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011

OK, can we now finally, formally move past the stale narrative that the Pirates are cheap?

Never mind that, a few ticks before midnight Monday, they signed No. 1 overall draft pick Gerrit Cole to an $8 million bonus, a Major League Baseball record.

Never mind that they spent $17 million on the full draft class, the most expensive in the sport's history.

Never mind, even, that they added $5 million to the payroll at the July 31 trade deadline by taking on Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick, making for a grand total of $22 million committed in a 16-day span.

Forget it all for a moment, if only because most of the above was expected.

Not Josh Bell.

I could break down dollars and decimal points all day to illustrate that the Pirates really are putting their cash back into baseball rather their pockets, their Seven Springs ski-lift upgrades or wherever else the conspiracy theories go. But it's so much simpler to point just to Bell, their second-round pick who stunned the baseball community by signing for $5 million.

"We're excited about the whole draft," owner Bob Nutting said Tuesday at PNC Park, "but we're especially happy about that one."

Bell, a 6-foot-3 outfielder out of Dallas Jesuit High School with breathtaking natural power, was ranked No. 6 on the Pirates' board and top-10 on most independent rankings. But Bell made clear he intended to honor his commitment to the University of Texas, and his family penned a letter to all 30 teams asking them not to pick him. His adviser, super-agent Scott Boras, floated through the media that not even $10 million could change Bell's mind.

If you're the Pirates, even if you think Boras is bluffing — and, trust me, there's ample precedent — why take on that headache?

No one would have complained if the Pirates bypassed Bell, just like the 29 teams that were scared off by his letter. In Cole, the Pirates already had a 6-foot-4 flame-throwing stud out of UCLA to add to an arsenal of elite pitching prospects.

And hey, the Pirates could have kept that $5 million for themselves, if only to cover the exact amount wasted on Lyle Overbay this summer.

But they didn't. They spent it.

And, maybe just as telling, they seemed as giddy as schoolchildren yesterday that they did.

Nutting: "Obviously, it's a tremendous day. I couldn't be more pleased."

Team president Frank Coonelly: "It's a great day for all of us."

General manager Neal Huntington: "We're just delighted."

Even manager Clint Hurdle, who has little to do with the draft, caught up with Nutting behind the batting cage and boomed out: "Great job!"

The Nutting ownership has done some dumb things since taking over in 2007, and I've taken pains to point those out: Nutting never should have paid that $20 million in 2008 to cover taxes for the minority owners and converted equity, a move made primarily to protect his stake. He should have been better informed and more aggressive in preventing the Matt Wieters and Miguel Sano fiascos.

But all the seven-figure checks being sent out of 115 Federal St. provide overwhelming evidence that it's well past time to cast aside the caricature of Nutting the Miser and the penny-pinching Pirates.

"Well, I would hope so," Coonelly said. "Bob has demonstrated a great commitment to this franchise."

Still cynical?

Let's look at the broader issue of major-league payroll.

The Milwaukee Brewers, based in a market two-thirds the size of Pittsburgh, have a $90 million payroll that dwarfs the Pirates' $50 million. But what if it could be shown that each team is spending to its means?

The Brewers will outdraw the Pirates by a 3-2 ratio at the gate, and their prices are 44 percent higher, which brings them $25 million more in ticket revenues. From there, estimate that the Brewers are making $5 million more in suites and sponsorships, even if that's probably low.

We're down to a $10 million difference in the teams' ability to spend.

Well, the Pirates just outspent the Brewers by $9 million on the draft — extra money that could have gone into major-league payroll — and our difference is now $1 million.

Finally, Rick Schlesinger, Milwaukee's chief operating officer, told me over the weekend that his team will lose money. That means the Brewers are spending beyond their means.

Are we at zero yet?

Yes, the Pirates need to keep adding to payroll, so they can keep the core of their roster together, so they can have a product that maximizes revenues at PNC Park.

For now, let's turn the page.

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