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Kovacevic: Pirates' payroll fits ... for now

| Wednesday, March 21, 2012

TAMPA, Fla. — No matter how rotten the Pirates have been expected to be any given spring, nothing ruins the setting. It's baseball at its purest, full of sunshine, swinging palms and smiles.

Even here, though, you hear it.

"If only they'd spend more ..."

It's not as common as, say, the grumbling at PNC Park or the shouting on talk shows or all the conspiracy theories concocted online, but it's heard often enough.

And it really, really deserves to go into a good, long hibernation.

Yes, the Pirates have underspent for the better part of a decade.

Yes, this Opening Day payroll will be $52 million, still among Major League Baseball's lowest.

And yes, owner Bob Nutting told me two years ago that the $80 million level of the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers is "absolutely" where the franchise needs to be.

But it takes no more than a rudimentary breakdown of the current roster to illustrate why this payroll is right for this team.

Let's start with the starters: Even with the five-man rotation set, Neal Huntington took on an ironic salary dump from the New York Yankees in absorbing a guaranteed $13 million owed to A.J. Burnett, including $5 million this year. For the first time since current ownership and management took over in 2007, the rotation depth was strengthened at the top rather than inviting a row of Marty McLearys into camp. If Burnett hadn't gotten hurt, Kevin Correia and his $4 million salary were bound for the bullpen.

Not very Pirates-like.

Neither was the building of the bullpen. In Huntington's first four years, he essentially started from scratch each winter, keeping a couple of youngsters and sifting through scraps to fill it out. This year, in another management first, he tendered arbitration contracts to keep veterans Jason Grilli, Evan Meek and Chris Resop.

The only reliever who gets big money on most rosters is the closer. The Pirates aren't an exception. Joel Hanrahan, still in his arbitration years, will make $4.1 million.

Where would you add payroll to the pitching?

Have a name in mind?

If so, hold that thought while we go through position players.

Most positions were set with young, largely inexpensive players: Neil Walker at second base, Pedro Alvarez at third and Alex Presley, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata across the outfield. Alvarez is no given, but that's why the Pirates traded for veteran Casey McGehee as a $2.4 million fail-safe.

That left catcher, first base and shortstop as positions of need.

Catcher Rod Barajas was signed for one year at $4 million, the highest salary paid to any free agent at his position this offseason.

Shortstop Clint Barmes was signed for two years at $10.5 million, No. 2 at his position.

The Pirates might have overpaid, but they got the players they wanted.

First base is where they whiffed. But even there, it wasn't from being cheap.

Once you get past the beyond-the-stratosphere free agents — Albert Pujols' $247 million and Prince Fielder's $214 million — the best of the rest were Carlos Pena and Derrek Lee, the latter of whom performed well last season after being acquired by the Pirates. Pena wanted to return to Tampa Bay and did. Lee remains unsigned and might retire.

The Pirates tried to get Lee back. In addition to virtually pleading, Huntington tendered a $7.25 million arbitration offer in December. All Lee had to do was say yes. For whatever reason, he didn't.

Management considered other first basemen but felt Garrett Jones' numbers were comparable.

Still have any other names in mind?

If you do, consider that Lee isn't the only one to spurn the Pirates just for being the Pirates. Roy Oswalt's agent wouldn't even listen when Huntington called.

Consider, also, which current cheaper players you'd bump to take your payroll to $80 million.

Jeff Karstens?

Charlie Morton?

Or which core players or elite prospects you might not be able to sign in the future.

Not so easy, is it?

That last point is huge. If payroll is filled out to some arbitrary figure every year in lieu of extending the McCutchens, it does more damage than good. That's where the money should go. Pay it to proven Pirates, committed Pirates.

At the same time, Nutting and this front office hardly are off the hook. That $80 million goal must be real, not an annual pushback of the goalposts. This core won't be cheap forever, and every attempt must be made to keep the best of them. It's the only way to justify payroll being lower now.

If that attempt doesn't get made, hey, go nuts. Tear into these guys. I know I will.

For now?

Take off the tin-foil hats and take a deep breath. Payroll's headed in the right direction at the right pace.

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