Building trust?


SOUTH HILLS – There has been a two-way trust issue in Pittsburgh regarding its baseball club: the city doesn’t trust the ownership to spend, and ownership doesn’t trust the city to show up at the ballpark. It had been this way for a while. It’s sort of a chicken-or-egg dilemma, though I’d argue that to whom much is given/purchased (a baseball club) more is expected.

Well, the city is doing its part this season as the Pirates have a chance to break their single-season attendance record of 2,436,139 set in 2001, the opening year of PNC Park. A year after the Pirates’ drew 2.26 million fans, the Pirates have drawn 1.8 million through 62 home dates, an average of 29,069 per game. The Pirates are out-drawing many of their small-market peers.

Pirates president Frank Coonelly predicted 2.5 million in 2014 attendance last year and told the Trib’s Karen Price that he’s optimistic the Pirates will set an attendance record this season.

“We still have some work to do,” Coonelly said Tuesday. “But I’m like a pollster. I’m reading the trends and ready to say that we’re in a good spot.”

Despite a lackluster offseason and higher ticket prices, the city has responded with an increasing demand for tickets. The Pirates have won, so people have come to the North Shore. What would have happened had the Pirates landed a David Price or Jon Lester or a big-ticket star in the offseason?

The fans have down their part. Now it will be interesting to see what ownership does with this support (and additional cash) this offseason.

The Pirates have only $23 million committed in payroll for 2015 – though it is tied to just four players in Andrew McCutchen ($10.28 million), Jose Tabata ($4.16 million), Charlie Morton ($8 million), Starling Marte ($1.3 million). They do have a number of players who will be getting more expensive in arbitration including Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Ike Davis, Mark Melancon and Gaby Sanchez, and several key players will be entering arbitration like Tony Watson and Josh Harrison. (I would think Alvarez or Davis is traded this offseason.)

Still, there is a financial flexibility, and there are challenges with Russell Martin and 40 percent of the rotation (Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez) headed to free agency.

Pirates’ ownership can start building trust with one easy step, by employing a tool the Pirates did not employ last season: the qualifying offer.

The qualifying offer, is a one-year offer that is the average of the top 100 salaries in baseball that can be attached to  by a club  to a free agent who has spent the entire year with the club. Last year the QO was $14.1 million, it’s estimated to rise to about $15 million this offseason. If  a player is tagged with the QO and the player signs elsewhere a club is awarded the signing club’s first-round pick (unless the selection comes in the top 10 overall picks).

I know Neal Huntington doesn’t like the idea of committing 18 percent or more of payroll to one player but the qualifying offer is a no-brainer for Martin. The catching market is incredibly thin. Martin will receive a significant multi-year offer. And I doubt the QO will be much of a deterrent as it was with Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales last offseason. I’m thinking Martin could get four years on the open market. He’s undervalued by WAR, I suspect, which would mean he’s be a potential bargain at 4y/$60 million. You know, Ted Danson/Jason Kendall dollars.

But I’d argue the qualifying offer should also be considered for Liriano. Pitching will be at a premium, and even if Liriano became the first player to accept the one-year qualifying offer, he’d be a decent bet to produce positive surplus value.

What the two qualifying offers would show is that ownership is willing to spend $30 million plus on free agents in 2015 and that’s the type of spending that will be necessary to supplement a contending roster. And with the attendance increase, and increase in television dollars, there should be significant dollars in reserve.

Could trust be built on both sides of the wall?

– TS