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Kovacevic: The Numbers Don't Add Up

Man, if Bob Nutting has a dartboard in his office, I'm pretty sure a picture of Dejan Kovacevic is stapled to it. Which means Kovacevic is A-OK in my book. Today, he uses the Milwaukee-Pittsburgh series as an excuse to seek answers to a question he asks a lot - given that the Brewers' situation seems similar to that of the Pirates', why are the Brewers spending so much more on payroll?

Some of is has to do with the Brewers' control of their own parking and better attendance, although the attendance is a chicken-egg sort of proposition.  The Brewers weren't always way ahead of the Pirates in attendance. In 2002, the Brewers' attendance was only slightly better than the Pirates'. The Brewers were awful that year, but the Pirates had done little to fix their problems after a very bad 2001 season, so that may be a wash. In 2003, the Pirates' and Brewers' attendance-per-game figures were basically identical (although the Pirates won seven more games than the Brewers that year, and that the Bucs made a number of cheapo free agent signings in the previous offseason that worked out and excited some fans).

In 2004, though, the Pirates had a miserable season (that was the Randall Simon / Raul Mondesi / Chris Stynes freakshow) and their attendance stayed low, whereas Milwaukee's rose substantially, probably due to a strong first half in which they were 45-41.

In 2005, it was clear that the Brewers franchise was on a path to health, as they posted a .500 record for the first time in over a decade and debuted or increased the playing time of a number of exciting young players, including Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder, Chris Capuano, J.J. Hardy and Bill Hall. Their attendance rose again. The Pirates failed to progress, and their attendance rose slightly but not nearly enough to make up the difference. In 2006, the Brewers' attendance continued to rise and stayed well ahead of the Pirates' even though they had a disappointing season and the Pirates hosted the All-Star Game.  

I'm not exactly sure why the Brewers' attendance increased so much between 2003 and 2006 - and I'm going to contact a Brewers blogger to find out - but if I had to guess, I'm pretty sure it would have to do with three things:

  1. Better baseball
  2. The perception that the future of the franchise was bright
  3. The perception that the team no longer had terrible ownership - the increase in attendance in Milwaukee corresponds directly with Bud Selig's January 2004 announcement that he would sell the team
Kevin McClatchy has said a number of times that he will increase the team's payroll once attendance improves. But attendance seems unlikely to improve much as long as the team keeps losing and his ownership group is in charge.

Still, though, Kovacevic points out that the differences in attendance don't explain the entire gap between Milwaukee's payroll and Pittsburgh's, which suggests that the Pirates' ownership is pocketing profits instead of spending to improve the team. McClatchy offers an absurd alternative explanation:

"Our thinking is to develop the players we have, and that alone keeps the payroll low in the early stages of that process," McClatchy said. "That's a natural course, if you have young, talented players you can put out there, which we do. If we went out and signed other players at this stage, those young players wouldn't be out there."

Well, Milwaukee's young players are even more talented than those of the Pirates', but that hasn't stopped the Brewers from employing higher-salaried complementary players like Geoff Jenkins, Corey Koskie, Jeff Suppan and Francisco Cordero. Obviously, the Pirates' forays into the veteran free agent market haven't worked out so well, but that's because 1) unlike the Brewers, they don't really have any idea how to spend their money anyway and 2) the Brewers' core of players is better than that of the Pirates even though those cores of players are roughly the same age. Which suggests that, if the Pirates really are holding back in order to spend more money later, they've got another problem - they're failing miserably. Milwaukee has already built a contending team with its core of young players; the Pirates aren't nearly ready to do so.

I realize that last paragraph was really convoluted, but the reason why is that the Pirates' low payroll is hardly their only problem. Their other problem is that they have shown no ability to evaluate talent, so they'd probably waste the money if they spent it anyway. Which doesn't mean they shouldn't spend money, it means that they should fire certain people and hire people who could spend it in an intelligent way.

When the Pirates have acquired veterans, it has usually meant grabbing mediocre players like Joe Randa or Randall Simon to block equal or better players like Freddy Sanchez or Craig Wilson. The Brewers don't do that. They only signed Koskie, for example, because there weren't really any other obvious options to play third. Koskie's hurt now, but may take over the starting third base job if he returns. If he does, though, you can bet that he won't continue to be the starter once management decides that prospect Ryan Braun is ready.

The problems with the Pirates' free agent signings were that they signed bad players and that they already had a huge number of young role-player types who weren't stars but who were better than the veterans they acquired. The Brewers, who have figured out what their farm system is supposed to do, have instead aimed to develop stars and then grab veterans to fill holes. It's a totally different strategy, and it explains why criticizing the Pirates' low payroll is a complicated matter. The low payroll is a problem, and the team's greedy ownership is also a problem. But the even bigger problem is that their fundamental strategy has been completely wrong ever since Dave Littlefield arrived.

Anyway, another problem with McClatchy's explanation is that he could have made it at virtually any time in the past ten years. Most of the Pirates' rosters have been filled with cores of young players who never developed into the cores of playoff teams. As long as that's true, McClatchy can keep peddling that lame excuse that those players are going to get expensive once they develop. Which is one factor that makes assessing the Pirates' payroll a very frustrating activity. The Pirates' payroll is offensive, and it's a problem. But it's not even close to being their worst problem.