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Tim Benz: Actions speak louder than words, and no one can hear the Pirates

Tim Benz
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Jerry DiPaola | Tribune-Review
From left, Neal Huntington, Clint Hurdle and Frank Coonelly talk to the crowd Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019, at PiratesFest at PNC Park.

At PiratesFest over the weekend, Pirates President Frank Coonelly gave Pittsburgh baseball fans a rah-rah speech.

It appears his goal was to build on some late season momentum from the club, which got itself above .500 for just the fourth time since 1992.

I’d suggest the time to do that — in real life and not just with words — has come and gone already. But sure, Frank. Give it a whirl.

“Trust me, nobody is pleased, satisfied or happy with 82 wins last year,” Coonelly said Saturday during a Q&A session with fans at PNC Park.

“Eighty-two wins will not get you in the postseason. We need at least 10-12 more wins to get to where we need to be. It’s too damn long, 40 years,” Coonelly emphasized, referencing the Pirates’ last World Series win in 1979. “Nobody is satisfied with 82 wins in this organization. Everybody is committed to doing what we can to put a World Series championship team on the field.”

The team’s actions, or lack thereof, suggest exactly the opposite.

If that’s truly how the Pirates front office feels, why has it allowed payroll to shrink from 2018?

When it was also down from 2017.

That doesn’t look to me like the front office is “committed.” How about you?

A quick spin around some baseball websites has the Pirates’ projected payroll anywhere from $58 million to $68 million to $73 million. Regardless of how you want to account for the raw dollars, every one of those sites projects the Pirates for the same ranking in baseball payroll, 29th.

That’s the second lowest in MLB. In each case, only Tampa’s is projected lower.

The Pirates made some legitimate strides last year, particularly in the starting rotation. The club improved from 75 to 82 wins. The starting pitchers’ collective ERA dipped from 4.47 in 2017 to 3.99 in 2018.

An organization that isn’t “pleased, satisfied or happy with 82 wins last year” may want to add a bat or two to help those arms.

The best the Pirates could come up with is signing Lonnie Chisenhall and trading for Erik Gonzalez. Chisenhall’s main job appears to simply be a buffer for the loss of Gregory Polanco until he gets healthy. Then, provide bench help thereafter.

Gonzalez may prove to be an upgrade over Jordy Mercer at shortstop. But he’s the kind of upgrade the Pirates like. The kind that will save them millions of dollars in the short-term on a two-way pre-arbitration contract.

What makes some of this conversation even more frustrating is that Coonelly’s expectations might actually be too high in one regard. In order to make the playoffs, the Pirates probably don’t need to win 10 more games. They may need to win only five more. In two of the last three seasons, 87 wins has been good enough to get in the playoffs.

Where the problem comes into play with the Bucs is that every other team in the NL Central has boosted payroll well above $100 million.

So, gathering those five extra wins in a division where every other team has added talent to its roster may be difficult, as the Pirates’ talent level has stayed relatively neutral.

General Manager Neal Huntington loves to say that spending doesn’t necessarily equate to winning. He brought up that point again at PiratesFest, noting that the Brewers, Indians, Athletics and Royals have all made the playoffs in recent seasons with less-than-gaudy payrolls.

That’s true. But circling back to Coonelly’s desired goal of the World Series, the Royals are the only ones in that group to win a title.

Another one of Huntington’s favorite quotes is to echo Billy Bean’s credo of “there’s a randomness to October.”

Yeah. It is random. Last year’s Red Sox team won the World Series with a league-leading $227 million price tag for its roster. The previous year, Houston’s was 17th with $138 million. The 2016 Cubs were 5th at $184 million. The 2015 Royals were 13th at $126 million.

Hence, you don’t have to be in the top five, or even top 10 in payroll, to win a World Series.

Although, you can’t be 29th, either. And keep in mind those Astros and Royals teams added players as the year went along.

So Coonelly can talk all he wants about wanting to desperately win a World Series. But actions speak louder than words.

And inaction is deafening.

Right now, I’m having a lot of trouble hearing Coonelly.