After the Deadline: A look at the payroll

Since I was gone all last week, providing minimal updates to the site, I spent the last two days updating all of the content in the “Features” section. Now that I have everything updated, I plan on reviewing these updates over the next few days, with dedicated posts for each topic. The first topic is always a favorite amongst Pirates fans: the payroll.

After all of the trades, I saw a $31 M number being thrown around. I had no idea where this was coming from, and couldn’t see any way where this would work. My estimated 40-man roster payroll came out to be $47,326,882. A report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette today has the official MLB figure at around $47.7 M. Both of those figures are estimates based on the current roster, and can change if any future moves are made, but at this point the $47 M range is pretty much what we’re going to get.

Before the Nate McLouth trade, the first trade of the season (well, if you don’t count the Delwyn Young deal), the Pirates were on pace to spend about $53.8 M, according to my estimates. The trades shed about $6 M from what the Pirates were set to spend before the first deal, and took the Pirates $7.3 M below their 2009 budget.

You could make the argument that the money saved this year doesn’t make much of a difference. The Pirates weren’t contenders before the trades started, and the prospects they received will help much more in the long term versus the extra $6 M spent in 2009. But what about the upcoming years?

A look at the Payroll Commitments Chart shows that the Pirates are only committed to $22.15 M in payroll from 2010-2014. The estimated minimum payroll for the 2010 season is currently $26.83 M. This doesn’t include arbitration raises, although the Pirates only have four players under arbitration, and they’ve said they won’t bring Tyler Yates back, making it three players who will likely receive a tender. Here is my estimate for the 2010 season, taking in to consideration option years, performance and injury histories, estimating arbitration figures, and giving all of the league minimum players a $10,000 raise from their 2009 salaries.

If the Pirates enter the 2010 season with this same team, they’re looking at a payroll just under $30 M. Shedding $6 M in payroll during a losing season is one thing, but going in to a season $25 M under budget (assuming the budget remains at $55 M) is something totally different. That doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do.

There’s a difference between spending money to be competitive, and spending money just to spend the money. Next year I project we will start off with an infield of Jeff Clement at first, Delwyn Young at second, Ronny Cedeno at short, and Andy LaRoche at third, with Pedro Alvarez probably getting a call in the first week of June for either first or third base. The outfield will likely be Lastings Milledge, Andrew McCutchen, and Garrett Jones, and there’s a chance we could see Jose Tabata or Gorkys Hernandez called up by mid-season.

The pitching staff will probably be Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, Ross Ohlendorf, Kevin Hart, and Charlie Morton. Brad Lincoln could also be a mid-season call-up, and the Pirates will have options like Daniel McCutchen, Jose Ascanio, Jeff Karstens, and Phil Dumatrait, although I think the latter two will end up in the bullpen. The Pirates also now have Tim Alderson, who could also see the majors by June 2010 if things go well.

The bullpen is looking much better, with Evan Meek, Jesse Chavez, and Joel Hanrahan pitching in the middle innings, Jeff Karstens providing a utility arm, and other options like Ascanio, Dumatrait, and Steven Jackson.

I could see the Pirates adding a middle infielder if Cedeno or Delwyn struggle the rest of the year. I could also see the Pirates adding a left handed reliever. Even with those additions, I don’t see the payroll going above $35 M.

The Pirates are rebuilding, but this time they’re doing it right (more on that tomorrow). Every player on the current 40-man roster is under team control through the 2010 season. Only three players are eligible for free agency after the 2010 season, and those players (Ramon Vazquez, Tyler Yates, Jeff Salazar) are hardly essential to our long term success. Matt Capps and Zach Duke will be eligible for free agency after the 2011 season, but hopefully by then we won’t need Duke, due to guys like Alderson and Lincoln, and we will have guys like Meek, Chavez, and Hanrahan ready to replace Capps.

I’m not saying the Pirates will be contenders in 2010, but it will mark the first wave of prospects to hit the majors. I don’t expect the Pirates to contend, although if Alvarez, Tabata, Lincoln, and/or Alderson make it to the majors in 2010, I like their chances to surprise in 2011.

Let’s assume the Pirates have a $55 M budget in 2010 and 2011. Let’s say the Pirates end up spending $40 M in 2010. That’s $15 M under budget, but wouldn’t that $15 M be of better use in 2011 when their top prospects have some major league seasoning, and they have a better idea of the team needs?

That thought process is usually met with skepticism. We’ve heard plenty of times that Bob Nutting will provide the funds when the Pirates are ready to compete. The only problem is, we’ve never seen it, although that’s because we’ve never seen the situation come up where the Pirates were close to contenders. We have seen Nutting autorize big spending (the Matt Morris trade), and I’m confident that we’ll see better quality when Neal Huntington brings in a big contract in the future.

I’m a believer that there’s a set process in building and running a small market team:

1. Establish a core of guys, and by “core of guys” I mean a group of players who are on the team for the long haul, not a Jason Bay/Xavier Nady situation where your top guys are only there for one year.

2. Add free agents or trade prospects for established major league players to fill any holes on the 40-man roster.

3. When a player in the majors reaching free agency is blocking a top prospect in the minors, trade the major league player to restock the minor league system, and call up the minor league player. An example of this is what we saw with the Nate McLouth deal, where we easily replaced McLouth with Andrew McCutchen.

Right now the Pirates are on step one. They’re establishing a core, but unfortunately a lot of their top guys are in AA or AAA right now. It’s hard to even say at this point who the “core” will be. Will Brad Lincoln and Tim Alderson live up to their hype? Will Pedro Alvarez play first or third? Is Garrett Jones a fluke, or a legit part of our future?

Until these questions are answered, the Pirates can’t move on to step two and add a free agent, mostly because they have no idea where the holes will be on their roster. An example of this came before the 2008 season. The big needs before the season were perceived to be center field and catcher. The Pirates didn’t sign anyone, giving Ryan Doumit and Nate McLouth a shot to prove themselves. If the Pirates had si

gned free agents, they would have blocked McLouth and Doumit.

It’s early in the rebuilding process for the Pirates. They don’t want to risk blocking someone. I’d say that adding a starting pitcher, a left handed reliever, or a middle infielder (an area where we are weak) would be a safe investment. I’d avoid adding an outfielder or first baseman, simply because we’ve got a few options at each spot, and I wouldn’t want to risk blocking someone like Jeff Clement or Garrett Jones. I’m in the camp that believes the Pirates will spend the money when the time is right. I’m just not certain that 2010 will be the right time, and I don’t think a $30-40 M payroll will signal the end of the world.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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