The biggest offensive upgrade for the Pittsburgh Pirates this off-season might end up being a guy who gets a lot of value from his defense. The Pirates won’t bring back one of their better pitchers from last year because they refuse to sign him for the money he’s projected to receive. Most of their off-season has involved low-key signings and trades, or the focus on bounce back players. And while other teams are spending money in free agency, the Pirates are taking a reserved approach, despite the fact that fans want to see them try to contend next year. All of this raises some serious questions about whether the Pirates are willing to spend what it takes to have a contending team.
But enough talk about last off-season. Let’s talk about this off-season.
So far, the two off-season approaches have been the same. Last year the big upgrade on offense was Russell Martin, who didn’t have much offense and was brought in for his defense behind the plate. This week we heard rumors that James Loney is emerging as the top choice for the Pirates. Loney does have some offensive value, but he gets a big boost in value due to his defense at first base. And with most people only focusing on offense, a guy like Loney doesn’t look as appealing as he should, just like Martin last year.
Last year the Pirates non-tendered Jeff Karstens. With his injury history, they didn’t feel he was worth the projected cost of $3.8 M, even though many people (myself included) disagreed. This year they refused to give A.J. Burnett a qualifying offer, stating that they can’t afford to pay the $14.1 M, even thought many people (myself included) feel that is an appropriate price that they should be able to pay.
Last year they made a bunch of smaller moves which ended up leading to bargains like Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez. They also went after bounce back pitchers, which led to Francisco Liriano and Mark Melancon. They have made a few smaller moves this year (that’s mostly all they’ve done so far), and they have been targeting bounce back pitchers.
There’s one more similarity between last year and this year: the focus on payroll. There was a time when this site asked Frank Coonelly when the Pirates could afford a $70-80 M payroll. The response was that once the fans saw the Pirates on the right track, they would show up, and then payroll could increase. The Pirates showed they were on the right track the last few years. Attendance went up. Payroll increased to $75 M last year.
The response to all of this is that the goal posts have been moved. The payroll questions still come up, only now the target payroll is higher. A few years ago the Pirates could never win without a $70-80 M payroll. Now they can’t win without a $100 M payroll.
Part of the big increase is the belief that the new TV revenues will drive prices up $20 M. That was an early off-season belief, but more information is coming out that says teams won’t be adding all $20 M to payroll. In fact, teams might not even get all $20 M. The Rockies revealed their budget last week, noting that they expect to get $19 M in new revenues. Here is how they plan to spend that money:
**$5.5 M to the MLB credit line for past loans
**$5 M for player raises
**$3.5 M to cover projected revenue losses
**$4-5 M in new payroll ($11 M total increase projected)
In the past few years, payroll around the league has gone up, but not to an extreme amount. When we asked the $70-80 M question, the median payroll figure in the league was around $86-87 M. Last year it was $89-90 M. So if we take that $3-4 M increase, plus the $11 M increase in payroll that the Rockies project, we get about $15 M. That means that $85 M is the new $70 M, and $95 M is the new $80 M.
I won’t be surprised if the Pirates spend at least $85 M by the end of the year. Right now their projected payroll is above $66 M, which was their starting point last year. They ended up with $75 M by the end of the year. That means they only need to add $10 M to the current figure in order to project with an $85 M payroll by the end of the 2014 season.
I don’t analyze payroll too often on the site. I keep track of the 40-man payroll as a resource, and I’ll talk about what the Pirates might be able to spend when a new payroll page comes out. But I’m far more interested in tracking the quality of moves the Pirates are making, rather than the quantity in money that they are spending.
The idea behind payroll analysis makes sense. Better players make more money. If you have a higher payroll, that probably means you’ve got a lot of high paid players, which means you’ve got a lot of good players. The problem with this is that it’s lazy analysis and doesn’t look at the reality of a team with a lot of cost controlled players who are being paid much less than their market value.
Andrew McCutchen signed an extension a few years ago, which now looks like one of the most team-friendly deals in baseball. He will make $7.25 M next year, despite coming off an MVP season. Jacoby Ellsbury just signed a $22 M per year free agent deal. McCutchen was worth two and a half wins more than Ellsbury last year.
Starling Marte posted a 4.6 WAR in 2013, which was his first full season in the majors. Gerrit Cole looked like he was turning into the ace he was projected to become by the end of 2013. Justin Wilson and Tony Watson were two of the best left-handed relievers in baseball last year. Jordy Mercer posted a 1.4 WAR in about half a season as the starting shortstop for the Pirates. All of these players will make the league minimum in 2014 — around $500,000.
Francisco Liriano looked like an ace in 2013. Charlie Morton looked like a strong middle of the rotation starter. Combined they will make about $10 M in 2014, which is what Scott Feldman just received per year in a three-year deal with the Astros.
Russell Martin had a 4.1 WAR in 2013, making him more valuable than Brian McCann, who just received $17 M per year. Martin will be making half of that in 2014.
Pedro Alvarez has more home runs than any other NL hitter in the last two years, and is tied for the fifth most home runs in baseball during that span. He projects to make $4 M in 2014.
The Pirates have a lot of talent, and most of that talent is playing for well under their market value. Every team has players like this, but the Pirates have enough that they were contenders in 2013, despite the fears that “they weren’t spending enough to have a winning team”.
There also aren’t a lot of needs for the Pirates this off-season. They look to be filling the right field position internally until Gregory Polanco arrives. They need a first baseman to platoon with Gaby Sanchez. If A.J. Burnett doesn’t return, then they could use an extra starting pitcher. They also could use a backup middle infielder. They could address all of those needs and still be spending under $90 M by the end of the season.
So when will the Pirates shed the “cheap” label? I don’t think they ever will be able to get rid of that label. The goal posts for total payroll will continue to move. If the Pirates spend $90 M, then the new goal will be $100 M. If they spent $100 M, then the new goal will be $110. They’re also going to look for values, and they will pass on signing some players for market rate. That doesn’t make them cheap. That’s just a reality for small market teams.
The only thing that should matter is whether the Pirates are making good moves and putting a good team together. Some people might think that can only come from raising payroll, but payroll isn’t a good method to evaluate a team. A bad team can have a high payroll and a good team can have a lower payroll. The Pirates are a good team, and they don’t need to make a lot of off-season moves or add a lot of payroll to remain a good team. So they might keep the “cheap” label, but the people saying they’re too cheap to contend this year are probably the same people who were saying that last year. We saw how that worked out. Overall it’s more important that they remain contenders with smart moves, even if those moves don’t reach a specific payroll total.