First Pitch: My Philosophy on Payroll

I don’t care about payroll.

That might come as a surprise to some. We have a lot of pages on the site dedicated to tracking the payroll of the team. I point out what I think the Pirates could afford to spend. But the truth about that is, a lot of people care about payroll. And I’m in the business of providing information on a subject that a lot of people care about. As for my own personal beliefs?

I don’t care about payroll.

In a lot of cases, this draws some outrage from people who get mad over the fact that I don’t get mad that the Pirates aren’t spending X amount of dollars. I don’t look at a baseball team in terms of payroll. I look at a baseball team in terms of the quality of the team, and the quality of the individual players. It’s hard to separate this from payroll, because traditionally people view an increase in payroll as an increase in quality. That’s why the Marlins were picked as contenders after spending a lot in 2012, and it’s why the Blue Jays were picked as contenders for spending the following year on the same players that failed with Miami.

My view on payroll is that it provides the benefit of making mistakes. The other payroll discussion I bring up on the site is how MLB is unfair because it allows teams like the Yankees to spend over a hundred million more per year than the majority of teams in the league. This doesn’t buy the Yankees a talented team. What it buys them is a margin for error.

Take a look at the 2013 season, for an example. The Yankees started with a $228 M payroll. Here were some of the biggest earners:

Alex Rodriguez: $29 M / 0.5 WAR

Vernon Wells: $11.5 M / -0.8 WAR

Mark Teixeira: $23.125 M / -0.2 WAR

Derek Jeter: $17 M / -0.6 WAR

Kevin Youkilis: $12 M / -0.4 WAR

In total, they spent $92.62 M on those five players for a grand total of negative 1.5 wins. That doesn’t even consider that they paid A.J. Burnett $8.5 M to put up a 4.0 WAR season with the Pirates. It doesn’t consider guys like Curtis Granderson, who made $15 M for a 1.4 WAR season. There was so much wasted money by the Yankees in 2013. They could have gone with replacement level players for the five players above, plus Granderson, and they would have had the same win total, with enough money to fund the entire payroll of most teams. Yet the Yankees still won 85 games.

Can you imagine where the Pirates would be if they had a $29 M player producing half a win above replacement level? Or even if they had a $12 M player producing negative value? That’s what money buys in baseball. It buys the ability to still be somewhat competitive, even if you make a few mistakes. The Yankees made some massive mistakes in 2013, but they also had the biggest payroll by far, allowing them to cover up those mistakes.

Small market teams need to be smart. If they make a bad signing or two, they don’t have an extra $50-100 M to spend covering up the mistake. Big spenders can be lazy. They can just throw money at established players, without worrying about whether those players might regress after their age 32 seasons, or get injured when they’re making $15-20+ M at ages 35 and up. They don’t have to worry about these problems because they’ve got the money to waste. We saw this today with Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers signed him to a seven year deal at $30.7 M per year. Kershaw is the best pitcher in the game, but every pitcher comes with an injury risk. All it takes is one injury and the Dodgers are eating $30 M per year for a year to a year and a half. And it wouldn’t hurt them that much with their TV deal, since they could just throw money at another top pitcher.

I’ve said this many times: when it comes to small market teams like the Pirates, payroll shouldn’t matter. The only thing that should matter is building a good team. Sometimes that approach involves spending money. Sometimes it involves going with league minimum players. A prime example of the latter could come if all works out right in the next two or three years.

The Pirates already have two top outfielders in Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte. Gregory Polanco should join them in the second half of the 2014 season, and the trio has what it takes to be the best outfield in baseball. That outfield in 2015 will cost about $11 M. In 2016 the price will go up, as Marte will be arbitration eligible, but the trio should come in around $17-18 M.

The Pirates saw Gerrit Cole arrive in the majors in 2013, and look like an ace by the end of the season. They could see the same thing with Jameson Taillon this year. And if things work out well, they could have Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham join that group by the middle of the 2015 season. Those four pitchers in 2016 would cost a combined total of just over $2 M, assuming no early extensions. And if they live up to their potential, you’re talking about one of the best young rotations in the game.

There’s a lot of “ifs” in the above scenarios, and more-so with the pitchers. But consider that scenario. The Pirates could have the best outfield in baseball, and a rotation full of young phenoms, all for $20 M or less in 2016. Even if you add Charlie Morton’s $8 M as the fifth starter, you don’t see a big increase.

The knee jerk response to that is “they should spend money since they’ll have it available”. But where? They’ll probably still be paying Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker, and I could see that pair making $15 M total. I’m guessing Tony Sanchez and Alen Hanson will be making up the catcher and shortstop positions, at league minimum salary. That means you’ve spent about $43 M on everyone except the bullpen (which usually falls under $10 M for the Pirates) and first base. If the first base position is still a problem by that point, they can spent there, but you’re still talking about a possible payroll that is lower than this year.

Again, this is all a scenario. Tons of things can happen between now and then. The point is that the payroll wouldn’t matter in that situation. It would be low, but if most of those young players worked out, the Pirates would have a contending team.

In a more realistic scenario — or at least a more current scenario — the Pirates have a good team heading into the 2014 season. They’ve got Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole looking like they could be aces at the start of the year. They’ve got Charlie Morton, who looks like a solid number three starter. I don’t have faith that Edinson Volquez can be the next Liriano, but I do think he could put up league average numbers over 180 innings, which would definitely save the bullpen and would have a lot of value. And the fact that they’re relying on guys like Wandy Rodriguez and Jeff Locke as fifth starter options puts them in a favorable spot compared to most teams.

The offense was a problem last year, and I don’t see that improving much. Gregory Polanco should provide a boost in the second half. Maybe Andrew Lambo carries his power over to the majors. Maybe Travis Snider’s toe was the problem last year, or Jose Tabata really figured it out in the final months of the season. I don’t think you can set your hopes too high on any of those three scenarios, but right field and first base are really the two question marks.

The Pirates have an MVP in center field. They have four win players in left field and behind the plate. Jordy Mercer could end up a top ten shortstop over a full season. Pedro Alvarez led the NL in home runs last year, and saw improved defense. Neil Walker might have had some bad luck last year, which if that regresses in 2014, could lead to above-average overall production at second base.

Then there’s the defense. That has gone highly overlooked, despite the fact that the Pirates won with pitching and defense in 2013. All of the complaints throughout the season were that the Pirates needed offense, and that they couldn’t continue to rely on pitching and defense to win games. My question to that line of thinking is: Why? Why can’t the Pirates rely on pitching and defense to win? They did it last year and it worked. They’re not the only team to try this approach and have success (SEE: San Francisco Giants).

The Pirates currently project to have a $73 M payroll heading into the season. They usually add about $8 M throughout the season with call-ups, depth options, and in-season waiver claims and trades. Without any other moves, I’d project them to end up north of $80 M by the end of the season, which is an increase over their 2013 payroll, but probably not the increase people wanted to see.

I’ve said I would have given A.J. Burnett a qualifying offer. I don’t think that matters at this point, since Burnett doesn’t look like he’s returning to baseball. I also would have tried to sign James Loney, although he said that he chose the Rays over similar offers from other teams, including the Pirates. At this point I don’t think there’s anyone who is really worth spending money on, to the point where payroll would jump to the amount people want to see. I also don’t think that there’s anyone who the Pirates need to get to make themselves contenders. Anyone added at this point would be a luxury, and not a need.

These aren’t popular beliefs that I’m stating. Most people don’t look at a prospect like Lambo at first base, or question marks in right field as strategies a contender should ever take. I’m just a guy who watches the Rays successfully take these same strategies every year, and as a result I don’t view the game in the same way as most people. There’s no reason why the Pirates can’t take the same approach, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t take the same approach.

Links and Notes

**The 2014 Prospect Guide is now available. You can purchase your copy here, and read about every prospect in the Pirates’ system. The book includes our top 50 prospects, as well as future potential ratings for every player.

**We have been releasing our top 20 prospects for the 2014 season. Today the countdown resumed with #13 – Stolmy Pimentel.

**Jameson Taillon Ranks Fifth Among Right-Handed Pitching Prospects

**Winter Leagues: Polanco Returns In Escogido’s Clincher

Author: 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 AccuScore.com, 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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