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Can Pirates follow Brewers' footsteps?

| Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011

MILWAUKEE — The team, based in one of Major League Baseball's smallest markets, hadn't won since 1992. The public soured, crowds shrunk, and the losing went on and on. A new stadium in 2001 didn't help. A new owner took over and, in an unpopular move, slashed payroll.

Sound familiar?

It should. All of the above was the case for the Pirates and the Milwaukee Brewers.

Things diverge from there, of course.

Milwaukee benefited from a better plan and better personnel moves earlier in the past decade to build a farm system that produced top talents such as Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart and Yovani Gallardo. Attendance at Miller Park boomed. Owner Mark Attanasio doubled the payroll, even though it means losing money this year. Top prospects were traded for more stars.

And here are the Brewers now, atop the NL Central Division and a legitimate threat to win the World Series.

"We're having a blast," Fielder, the mega-slugging first baseman, said Saturday. "This is the best team we've had, and it's so tight it's like being back in high school again. No telling where we stop."

Is this where the Pirates are heading?

The Brewers

On Sept. 30, 2005, at PNC Park, Milwaukee's Damian Miller homered off the Pirates' Ryan Vogelsong to bring the Brewers a 6-5 victory that clinched an 81-81 record.

It was .500, at last, after 13 losing seasons.

"Honestly, getting to .500 was the toughest thing we had to do," Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin said. "I remember the pressure of that. That just hung over our heads. And I know it's hanging over the Pirates' heads, too."

Just a little. It's been 18 seasons — and counting — for the Pirates.

"That was the first step," Melvin said, "the one that gave the fans faith that we were doing the right thing."

All through the Brewers' losing, there were accusations that ownership wasn't committed, that management was incapable of finding talent. It didn't help that when Attanasio, a California businessman, bought the franchise in 2004 — the year before .500 — one of his first moves was to authorize a dramatic reduction in payroll.

But that, Melvin said, was part of the first firm plan in years.

"We were at about $42 million, and we had the money to go up to $45 million," Melvin said. "Instead, we went down to $28 million because we could take the rest of that money and put it into amateur players, scouting and development. What we wanted to know was: If we had success later, could we trust ownership that, if we got better, they'd help us with pieces down the road• That trust was there."

Not with the public.

"Fans don't want to hear about rebuilding," recalled Rick Schlesinger, the Brewers' chief operating officer.

Then, the core started to form. Fielder, Hart, Gallardo and J.J. Hardy were drafted out of high school. Next, Melvin set a goal of drafting college players to ensure a large group could rise together.

"You couldn't plan it any better than to get Braun and Weeks," Melvin said. "These guys all came up really quick. That's what really did it for us."

The Brewers were competitive again, but pitching was scant. The crowds were bigger, and Attanasio authorized more spending, but it still wasn't easy to attract free agents.

Melvin broke the ice in 2006 by signing pitcher Jeff Suppan to a four-year, $42 million. It produced a negligible return, but the Brewers sent a signal that they were serious.

The Suppan signing wasn't the only bust — Eric Gagne and Trevor Hoffman, for example, were paid tens of millions for the tail end of their careers as closers — and the team remained mediocre.

That led to the franchise's boldest move, the acquisition of ace pitcher CC Sabathia from Cleveland in 2008 for a top prospect. The Brewers had made a move worthy of the New York Yankees, and the fans responded, filling Miller Park the rest of the season, then reveling as the team finally made the playoffs.

The Brewers drew 2.75 million fans or more every season since, and that allowed management to sign Braun, one of the game's premier hitters, to a five-year $105 million extension. Hart, Weeks and Gallardo also were extended. This past winter, the Brewers acquired Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, two of the American League's best pitchers, for prospects.

"I talk about trust a lot here," Melvin said. "The fans have to trust you're doing the right things. We have to trust the fans are going to come out."

The glaring move yet to be made is extending Fielder, due to be a free agent after making $15.5 million this season. Management has made several overtures, but Fielder is expected to test the open market, just as Sabathia did after his half-season in leaving for the Yankees.

Fearing the loss of Fielder pushed the Brewers to go for it in 2011.

"There are times when you have say, 'The time is now,' " Schlesinger said. "If your pieces are in place, and the market is embracing it, you do it. But there are risks."

One is that the Brewers expect to lose money this season.

"We recognized that the pieces were in place for this team to do something special, and ownership, thankfully, was ready to invest in it," Schlesinger said. "We don't want to lose money every year. But there's a convergence here where we felt it was worth spending beyond the break-even point."

The other risk is on the baseball end, where the Brewers' minor league system has been mostly stripped.

"We're starting to see that talent replenish at A-ball, and our thinking is that we have enough young players in the majors to bridge that gap," Melvin said. "It's hurt us, no question. But now is the time."

The Pirates

The Pirates' ownership and management team, in place since 2007, has cited several other teams as models for baseball operations, but Milwaukee always has been the focus in the business sense.

"There's no reason the Pirates can't be where the Brewers are," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said. "It might not be immediately, but we will eventually. To get there, I thought we had to follow a plan that was very similar to Milwaukee's: Build a good, strong team from within. That will get your fans excited. Your fans' excitement leads to gate revenue. And that revenue can lead not only to the draft and international markets but also get pumped into major league payroll."

Schlesinger sees it the same way.

"To me, there's no reason the Pirates can't be in the same situation," he said. "They have a great ballpark, it's a baseball town, and they've shown they can coexist with successful teams in their market."

The key similarity is market size: Milwaukee's metropolitan region has a population of 1.56 million, making it two-thirds the size of Pittsburgh's 2.36 million. Both also are three-sport towns — with Milwaukee adopting the Green Bay Packers — in which iconic football teams are kings, and the entertainment dollar is finite.

But there are differences: The Brewers' Miller Park holds 5,000 more fans and its roof nullifies the weather, but it isn't nearly as inviting as PNC Park. The Brewers get more than $10 million in parking revenue to the Pirates' zero, but the Pirates have the far better local TV rights deal. The Brewers never have won a championship, while the Pirates still have fans who have lived through three.

Maybe that explains why Pirates fans embraced the team's revival immediately.

"The fans in Pittsburgh are responding faster than the lag of a year or so that you usually see in sports," Schlesinger said. "That's a huge benchmark, one that translates directly into ticket sales for the future."

That's where Melvin's trust factor with fans comes into play. The Brewers' ticket prices are 44 percent higher than the Pirates', which are the cheapest in baseball, according to Team Marketing Report. The Pirates' plan to raise prices next year — it would be the first across-the-board hike since 2002 — is aimed at closing the gap. But at least both teams are confident they can make such moves and still draw. Teams such as the Tampa Bay Rays fail to draw no matter their success and, thus, must budget accordingly.

The Pirates' trust factor still has a long way to go. Payroll is at about $50 million, a little more than half that of the Brewers', though $4.8 million was added at the trade deadline. Their draft spending ranks No. 1 in the majors during the past three years. There there have been no extensions for the current core players akin to the Brewers' moves, though Coonelly sounds open to more.

"With the fan reaction we've had, it marks the beginning of our ability to lock up Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata or Pedro Alvarez, as well as add pieces to that puzzle," Coonelly said.

Perhaps the bigger issue is not how to sign the core but rather to make sure that this is really it. McCutchen and Walker have performed well this year, but Tabata and especially Alvarez have struggled. Milwaukee's strength was that its core was its everyday lineup, and the 2011 Pirates have been built on mostly experienced starting pitching that performed well above expectations.

"We believe we've taken a step forward this year, but there's going to be the challenge of how do we take that next step?" general manager Neal Huntington said. "We will give up prospects for players who can help us right away. We'll make an aggressive step in free agency if it's the right step to make. But the bottom line along the way is that each decision has to be the right one."

If that works out, the Pirates and Brewers might be peers for more than a couple of weeks.

"It's great to see what's happening in Pittsburgh, great for baseball," Schlesinger said. "And it shows that the model can work, that a franchise in a small or mid-size market, if they stick to the plan, can make this happen."

Additional Information:

Sister franchises?

Comparing the records and 40-man roster payrolls for the Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers in the 11 years since the teams moved into new stadiums:

2001: Pirates 62-100 ($46.7M payroll); Brewers 68-94 ($46.6M payroll)

2002: Pirates 72-89 ($46M); Brewers 56-106 ($49.2M)

2003: Pirates 75-87 ($62.3M); Brewers 68-94 ($47.2M)

2004: Pirates 72-89 ($32.5M); Brewers 67-94 ($29.6M)

2005: Pirates 67-95 ($30.1M); Brewers 81-81 ($42.8M)

2006: Pirates 67-95 ($43.4M); Brewers 75-87 ($58M)

2007: Pirates 68-94 ($51.4M); Brewers 83-79 ($72.8M)

2008: Pirates 67-95 ($50.8M); Brewers 90-72 ($90.3M)

2009: Pirates 62-99 ($47.9M); Brewers 80-82 ($90M)

2010: Pirates 57-105 ($44.1M); Brewers 77-85 ($94.6M)

2011: Pirates 56-62 ($45M*); Brewers 69-51 ($85.5M*)

*Payroll figures for current season based on opening day

Additional Information:

Size difference

Major League Baseball's five smallest markets, based on the 2010 U.S. Census:

Pittsburgh ? Population: 2,356,285 (U.S. rank: 22)

Cincinnati ?  2,130,151 (27)

Cleveland • 2,077,240 (28)

Kansas City • 2,035,334 (29)

Milwaukee • 1,555,908 (39)

Additional Information:

The money men

Comparing the highest-paid players from each team:


Derrek Lee, 1B ? $7.25M*

Ryan Ludwick, LF ? $6.775*

Paul Maholm, LHP • $6.25M

Chris Snyder, C • $6.25M

Ryan Doumit, C ? $5.25M

Lyle Overbay, 1B ? $5M**


Prince Fielder, 1B ? $15.5M

Zack Greinke, RHP ? $13.5M

Randy Wolf, LHP • $9.5M

Corey Hart, RF • $6.83M

Rickie Weeks, 2B ? $4.5M

Yuniesky Betancourt ? $4.3M

*Acquired in July 31 trade. Original team paid two-thirds of salary

**Released Aug. 1, but Pirates must pay full salary

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