PITTSBURGH -- Addressing fans during a "town hall" session on the first night of PiratesFest, club president Frank Coonelly for the first time publicly acknowledged that the Bucs' payroll for the 2013 season could approach $70 million.With general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle sitting to his right on a stage in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Coonelly confirmed that the Pirates ended 2012 with a payroll of "roughly $61 million, and we ... may approach the $70 million mark, depending on how we fill out the roster. "My job is to generate as much revenue as possible, to give Neal and Clint the greatest opportunity to put together a roster that can compete." In reference to the expanding payroll, Huntington said in response to another question that there is no reason the Pirates could not enter 2013 with both Jason Grilli, who recently signed a two-year contract for $6.75 million, and closer Joel Hanrahan, who is in line for a $7 million salary through arbitration and thus known to be the subject of trade talks. "We absolutely can open the season with Grilli and Hanrahan," Huntington said. "There are places we feel we can upgrade, and if we make a move, it will be to get better." The remarks by Coonelly and Huntington came during a one-hour Q&A forum with season-ticket holders, the invited guests to the first night of the annual PiratesFest. On Saturday and Sunday, the general public will get their chances to fire questions at the team's brain trust. Some news came out of Friday's session. Hurdle let slip that Jeff Branson, formerly the hitting coach at Triple-A Indianapolis, would join the big league club as assistant to new hitting coach Jay Bell. Huntington, surprisingly, said that one of the assignments for new first-base coach Rick Sofield will be to help Andrew McCutchen's defense; the center fielder was recently awarded his first Gold Glove for defensive excellence. The opening event was generally amicable, with fans more inquisitive than upset over the Pirates having extended their streak of losing season to 20 with late-season collapses in each of the past two years. One gentleman asked pointedly, to an outburst of applause, "What can you say for people to invest our time, our hearts and our money in this franchise that now has failed for 20 years?" Coonelly took that one. "No question the end of the year was disappointing for us. Nobody at PNC Park was happy with the way we ended 2012," Coonelly said. "Fact of the matter is, we put ourselves in position to meet our objective, which is clear and consistent: to win our division. We've made a lot of progress, and have to figure out a way to make those last two months come out better. "We have a young and maturing roster. We're going to learn from being 16 games over .500, and figure out how to finish it off. We need to be not only physically tough enough, but mentally tough enough as well." A timely question concerned the recent trade in which the Royals packaged a group of prospects in a deal with the Rays, a deal headlined by premier right-hander James Shields. Huntington was challenged about "collecting Pokemons" instead of pulling the trigger on such a swap. "In our organization and with our market size, we can't trade all of our prospects," said Huntington, who last July did consent to sending Colton Cain and Robbie Grossman to Houston for veteran left-hander Wandy Rodriguez. "If we did, we'd have no players, because we can't afford to buy new players through free agency." The Major League purchase chasm is widening, due significantly to mushrooming television deals in certain markets, such as in Southern California, where the Dodgers and Angels have been dropping nine-figure deals on free agents. In view of that, Coonelly was put on the defensive about the deal he signed two years ago with ROOT Sports for what has been reported as no-frills terms between $16 million and $20 million annually. "The facts out there have been wrong, not even close," he said. "I'm not sure where they came from. Those contracts are subject to confidentially clauses, but I will say ours is well over what's been reported. Even though we're the [27th-largest] market in the Majors, our TV deal is well above that. "And it did include a signing bonus. That allowed us to be the biggest spenders in the amateur Draft before the cap came in." Oh, and as for Sofield helping McCutchen on defense? "Subjectively, Andrew won a Gold Glove. Objectively, he doesn't score so well," Huntington said. "Sofield can be of help to Cutch; he can help drive up his metrics."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.