PITTSBURGH – Jose Bautista doesn't know if the Pirates didn't have the money to spend or simply didn't want to spend the money they had.
Regardless, the major league home run leader is convinced that if the profitable Pirates had invested in players several years ago, they wouldn't be worrying today about ending an 18-year losing streak.
The Pirates were ready to win during the same 2007-08 seasons the club when was making more than $29 million in profits, said Bautista, a former Pirate now with the Toronto Blue Jays.
The team's decision not to spend meant their streak of losing seasons — the longest in major American pro sports history — was bound to continue, Bautista said. Pirates president Frank Coonelly has said the club tried to build a winner by spending on draft picks, scouting, player development and other areas.
"I don't think they did anything illegal or wrong. They made money, they lost games but that's the way the system is right now," Bautista said during an interview in Toronto. "You're able to do both."
Bautista and several other former Pirates players talked to The Associated Press about the disclosure of team financial statements showing the franchise received nearly $70 million in revenue sharing funds while making a healthy profit during those two seasons. At the same time, the Pirates were tearing apart — partly for financial reasons — a roster that included current or future All-Stars Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Matt Capps, Nate McLouth and Bautista.
The players had an unanimous reaction: It's too bad the team wasn't kept together.
"It's a good city and a good sports town," Cubs outfielder Xavier Nady said. "I feel like they deserve a winning team. We had a good group of guys and then they slowly dismantled everybody."
The 2007 Pirates had a productive everyday lineup and bench, yet the starting pitching — Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Paul Maholm, Zach Duke — was relatively young and untested. The one veteran starting pitcher, Matt Morris, had nothing left and was released after going 3-4 with a 6.10 ERA. The team stayed around .500 until close to midseason, then faded to a 68-94 finish.
"We had a great team on the field. We felt like we could have benefited from improving our pitching staff," Bautista said. "They went with rookies on the pitching staff and that wasn't necessarily a recipe for success. We thought that we could have benefited from getting a couple of good veterans, proven major league starting pitchers. They didn't feel the need to go out and spend that money. For whatever reason, they decided not to and we lost a lot of games."
That season was the first with Bob Nutting as the primary owner, and he brought in Coonelly, a former MLB labor counsel, as president. In turn, Coonelly hired general manager Neal Huntington. Now, three seasons later, the Pirates are fielding a last-place team that may lose more than 100 games.
"It's (bad) for the fans because they're great fans there," said Nationals outfielder Nyjer Morgan, formerly in Pittsburgh.
Coonelly said those Pirates were dismantled because it was an older team — though no starter was older than 29 — that wasn't equipped to contend. The payrolls were $51 million in 2008 and $50.9 million in 2007, or about $7 million less than this season's.
"We traded aging, veteran players who were approaching free agency for younger players, some of whom came right to the major league level and some of whom went to the minor leagues," Coonelly said. "Young players who were not arbitration-eligible. We had to completely overturn a veteran roster that was unproductive and losing 95 games a year."
Younger players also equate into cheaper players, and Bautista believes Major League Baseball should toughen its rules and force teams to spend revenue sharing money on upgrading their rosters.
"What was surprising is that nobody was really making $15 million or $20 million a year," he said. "We felt like we had a great, affordable starting lineup and ... bench. We just didn't have any starting pitching."
Did the players make management aware of their concerns?
"No, we never had that type of leadership," Bautista said. "Maybe because we just didn't have that type of leader on the team or maybe because everybody felt their voices were not going to get heard anyway."
The players, Bautista said, talked among themselves about the team that could have been.
"Obviously you make comments and you talk about it a little with your teammates. You can't do anything publicly because you don't do that. You can't critique your ownership or your GM publicly, it's not your job," Bautista said.
Bautista was among those Pittsburgh dealt — to Toronto for a backup catcher, Robinzon Diaz, who's no longer with Pittsburgh. The Pirates felt Bautista wasn't the answer at third base and they didn't want to pay him more than $1 million to sit the bench.
Bautista's career took off this season, and he leads the majors with 40 homers for Toronto — 24 more than he hit in any season with Pittsburgh.
Similarly, Capps was cut by the Pirates last winter — they got nothing for him — because the two sides were a few hundred thousand dollars apart in contract negotiations. Capps has a combined 31 saves with Washington and Minnesota.
"You look at the names they traded away, the names that walked away. You wouldn't be human if you didn't dream about what could have been there, especially with that city, the passion, the ballpark there," Capps said. "A winning team in that town would (make for) one of the best places in baseball to play. It's hard not to dream and think about what could have been."
AP freelance writers Ian Harrison in Toronto, Ken Sins in Arlington, Texas, and Pete Kerzel in Washington contributed to this report.