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Might sinking Pirates attendance mean sinking payroll?

| Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, 8:03 p.m.
The crowd stands during the singing of the national anthem by Jackie Evancho before the start of the Pittsburgh Pirates 2016 season opener against the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park on Sunday, April 3, 2016.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
The crowd stands during the singing of the national anthem by Jackie Evancho before the start of the Pittsburgh Pirates 2016 season opener against the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park on Sunday, April 3, 2016.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — After the Pirates set a franchise record for home attendance in 2015, the team's payroll cracked the $100 million mark for the first time in 2016.

The crowds were smaller in 2016, however, and the payroll this past season went down by about $10 million. Some of that was due to the salaries not paid to Jung Ho Kang (who was on the restricted list all season) and Starling Marte (who was suspended 80 games for PED use).

In 2017, attendance plummeted by another 15 percent. When asked what that might mean for the payroll next season, general manager Neal Huntington was coy.

“We are working, as we head through this offseason, about how we maximize the dollars available to us,” Huntington said Monday. “We recognize that the attendance drop is reflective of a fan base that wants a winner, and we'll do what we can to put a winner out there to draw them back out and reward them.”

Even with two open spots on their 40-man roster, the Pirates are on track for a $105 million payroll in 2018. That figure is not carved in stone, though.

Nine players — including top earners Andrew McCutchen ($14.75 million) and Josh Harrison ($10.25 million) — are under contract for 2018 at a total cost of $72.09 million.

The Pirates have 25 players who are not yet eligible for arbitration, which means the club gets to set their salaries. Those players each will make around the major league minimum of $545,000 next year for a total cost of $13.63 million.

Four arbitration-eligible players — Gerrit Cole, George Kontos, Felipe Rivero and Jordy Mercer — are projected to cost a total of $19.8 million.

The expected total payroll of $105 million could be significantly lower if the Pirates trade McCutchen and/or Harrison. Huntington is listening to offers for both players during this week's winter meetings.

During PiratesFest on Saturday, team president Frank Coonelly said it's his job to find ways to hike payroll by generating more revenues.

“There is no artificial $100 million limit,” Coonelly said. “I can assure you we are not stuck at any artificial number. We are investing the dollars that we generate through this team back into the team. We need to make sure that we're as competitive as possible.”

Although he admitted that “the correlation between payroll and winning is certainly not perfect,” Coonelly did not get into details about whether fluctuations in attendance might affect future roster moves and payroll.

Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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