Why the 2015 Pirates Could Be a 100-Win Team

This is your chance. Neal Huntington heard it from multiple teams leading up to the 2013 Trade Deadline. More than one competing front office told the Pirates general manager to “act properly,” as this was his chance to end 20 years of losing.

“Reminding us how important it was to the city for us to win and how long it had been,” Huntington said. “We understand it. You know it’s part of the gamesmanship. It had no impact whatsoever, if not turning us against them a little bit.”

Huntington did act properly. No other NL Central rival budged and overpaid to improve their current roster, so neither did he. It sets up for a very competitive next three pennant races. The Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds are all built to jockey for the 2013, 2014 and 2015 pennants until the rebuilding Chicago Cubs have a strong MLB roster to match their big-market revenue streams.

A.J. Burnett
Unless the Pirates sign him to a two year deal this off-season, A.J. Burnett would be gone by 2015. Photo credit: David Hague

A New-Look Pirates

The 2015 edition of the Bucs is potentially the most interesting roster in years, especially for you types that like to follow Pirates prospects (hey, you). This year’s team, projected to win 94 games, is largely built around impact free agents and Major League trade returns.

But in 2015, the following players will be lost to free agency if they do not sign an extension. Maybe Martin (who will be 32) or Liriano (31) re-signs, but let’s err on the cautious side and say they will not:

  • SS Clint Barmes
  • RHP A.J. Burnett
  • C Russell Martin
  • RHP Jason Grilli
  • LHP Francisco Liriano
  • RHP Charlie Morton
  • LHP Wandy Rodriguez

And this list of players will both be potential non-tenders in their second or third arbitration year:

  • 1B Garrett Jones
  • RHP James McDonald
  • 1B Gaby Sanchez
  • RF Travis Snider

That’s five of the nine starters from 2013 Opening Day, four other starting pitchers from this season and an All-Star closer — gone.

Happy trails. Many of these guys will play important roles in the Pirates’ current postseason quest, but time can be cruel to baseball players entering their 30’s. Two years from now, Huntington will have a youth movement as his disposal to keep the win times rolling. Since no one left at the trade deadline, the GM says his front office is making “tentative plans” for future rosters though not “concrete plans.”

Projected 2015 Pirates 40-Man Roster

Let’s cut right to the chase. This is my 40-man roster projection for the 2015 season at $82 million:

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(click to embiggen)

Before we get down to the minute details (which I really enjoy), here are five important points to note:

  1. A total of 16 players would be in their “prime years” on the 25-man roster. For pitchers, that means age 24 to 28. For hitters, it’s age 26 to age 31. Projecting aging curves is, of course, an inexact science. You can learn more about the topic from Baseball Prospectus’ J.C. Bradbury. I went aggressive with Alen Hanson thinking he will be up in May 2015. He might not.
  2. The three outside additions to the organization are first baseman Billy Butler, utility player Alberto Callaspo and starting pitcher Johan Santana. More on why those were my selections in a moment.
  3. We are projecting $525,000 as the 2015 MLB minimum. The collective bargaining agreement does not set out what the exact number will be, only that it will be above $500,000 and see a “cost of living” increase from 2014.
  4. All of the players on the right side would start the season on the 40-man roster and not the active roster. All would have to be added to the 40-man before the 2015 season to avoid minor league free agency or the Rule 5 Draft. There are a few exceptions for prospects who project to be added by mid-season. If this season has proven anything, it’s that you need a lot of pitchers to get through a season.
  5. This whole exercise is nothing more than a projection. Players get hurt. Players become sucky. Players become awesome. Players we might not expect to become Pirates become Pirates. Making actual baseball decisions is far above my pay grade; I just play a GM on the internet.

Let’s get into this:

Who the Pirates Lose

This all started by looking at the Future Payroll Projection Chart and figuring out who would still be around in 2015. At first glance, Huntington has a blank slate to work from. Only $14 million is committed to the 2015 payroll right now: $10 million to Andrew McCutchen and $4 million to Jose Tabata.

Then add in the guys already on the active roster who would still be playing for the minimum in 2015: Gerrit Cole, Jeff Locke, Starling Marte, Jordy Mercer, Bryan Morris, Tony Sanchez and Justin Wilson. Each one seems like he will be around two more years, so that takes the Pirates to a minimum $17.675 million for nine players. For our purposes, I bumped up their salaries on the chart, which teams often do for players who have Major League experience.

While you could technically field an MLB team with just nine guys, it’s not recommended. Let’s keep going and add in 20 players who are all in the minor leagues. You can probably recognize most of the names on the chart. They bump up the payroll projection to about $20 million, and it leaves us with only 11 spots to fill. Being a GM isn’t all that hard!

Pedro Alvarez could be making $10 M in 2015. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Pedro Alvarez could be making $10 M in 2015. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Who Stays Through Arbitration

Now it gets more difficult. Many players on the current 40-man roster will be arbitration-eligible in 2015. We will roll through their names quickly in alphabetical order and make the call:

  • Pedro Alvarez (2nd year) – Absolutely. $10 million
  • Jeanmar Gomez (1st year) – Sure. The rub is he has to stay on the MLB roster, as he is out of options. $1.5 million
  • Josh Harrison (1st year) – No. Strong possibility he stays, but I don’t have a spot for him.
  • Jared Hughes (1st year) – No. Same as Harrison, with the rub that he will be 29 years old.
  • Garrett Jones (3rd year) – No. He is already declining, and 2015 would be his age-34 season.
  • Vin Mazzaro (2nd year) – Maybe, but probably not. There will be other less expensive options.
  • James McDonald (3rd year) – No. He would really have to show a turnaround next season.
  • Michael McKenry (1st year) – He’s a capable backup catcher for the price of $1 million.
  • Mark Melancon (2nd year) – Yes. You don’t pay for saves. You do pay for dominant relief when you are a winner. $7 million
  • Alex Presley (1st year) – No, unless he breaks out. He will be 30 that year and has no options left.
  • Gaby Sanchez (3rd year) – No. Maybe if it were his second year, but third year will be too costly for a platoon guy.
  • Travis Snider (2nd year) – No. Like James McDonald, next year will be a “show-me” season.
  • Neil Walker (2nd year) – Absolutely, even at age 29. $8 million
  • Tony Watson (1st year) – Let’s do it. He has done something right to have a career 3.50 ERA. $1 million

The unsigned players would be non-tendered. All of the salary figures are estimates based on performance and year of arbitration, plus a scientific process called “I guessed.” The six arbitration-eligible signings add $28.4 million to the payroll.

Who Comes In From Outside

When I looked at three roster spots needed to fill, I concurrently noticed three potential weaknesses of the roster:

  1. Alex Dickerson as starting first baseman – This is not a shot at Dickerson, who has a very loud bat and a fantastic July to raise his Double-A numbers to .295/.339/.511 this season. But his is one of the easier positions to fill in free agency (anyone can play the position unless he is 300 pounds), and I found a deal that might work to have a strong MLB first baseman.
  2. Pedro Alvarez still can’t hit lefties – Maybe this fact changes, but you can’t ignore Alvarez’s career .632 OPS or his All-Star season’s .627 OPS against left-handed pitchers. He is prime for a platoon partner at some point. It’s perfectly fine to have a $10-million player who only mashes righties.
  3. That sure would be a young starting rotation – Even though pitchers peak young, something is off about a rotation of Cole-Taillon-Kingham-Locke-Pimentel which averages 24.4 years old. And only one lefty? At PNC Park? This will not do!

Let’s go shopping!

First baseman Billy Butler would be entering his final season of Kansas City Royals’ control in 2015, a $12.5-million team option with a $1-million buyout. For that price as a 29-year-old pending free agent, Butler has to be a trade candidate this winter and next. Royals GM Dayton Moore pushed his eggs into the 2013 basket by trading Wil Myers+ for James Shields, and whether it works out with a playoff spot or not, he should be looking to re-stock prospects.

Butler is a career designated hitter who plays a mediocre-but-capable first base (356 career games). He also hits righties well and creams lefties, crafting a career 120 wRC+ that gives him a thumbs-up to hit in the middle of the lineup. “Country Breakfast” is an easy .300/.360/.460 hitter in Pittsburgh, and his trade cost depends almost entirely on much of his $12.5 million the Royals are willing to take on to get prospects back.

West coast enthusiast Alberto Callaspo hits left-handed pitching very well, posting a career 106 wRC+ against lefties despite the fact that he is about as tall as your child. He plays mostly a strong third base and mediocre second base, though he has dabbled enough at shortstop and outfield to be considered a utility belt. Callaspo is a free agent after next year, so signing him to a two-year, $8 million contract to platoon with Alvarez and bounce around the field (figuratively) would be a good choice.

One more free agent, and even I am not 100 percent about it: Johan Santana. Here’s the good: he is a two-time Cy Young winner who could be available for 40 cents on the dollar and says his career is not over, his strikeout-flyball style as a left-hander is perfectly suited to playing at PNC Park in front of a Marte-Polanco-McCutchen outfield and he would be a veteran presence.

Now the bad. Shoulder injuries are bad, so bad that almost any guaranteed money seems too risky. He has not pitched for 12 months and may not pitch too often next year. But you know what? If Huntington can cut a deal similar to that of Liriano’s, a small guarantee that balloons if Santana is even moderately healthy, the lefty is a huge late-career revival candidate in the vein of A.J. Burnett. Go out and see what two years and $18 million would get you.

Having a top of the rotation of league minimum guys like Gerrit Cole will give the Pirates plenty to spend. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Having a top of the rotation of league minimum guys like Gerrit Cole will give the Pirates plenty to spend. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Money to Burn

Even if the Royals took on no money for Butler, the Pirates would be fielding what looks to be a winning Major League team for a mere $82 million.

Here’s the beauty part: they can go higher than that. Pittsburgh is projected to spend about $70.5 million on its MLB payroll this year, one of the lowest in the game. The team could earn a few million from a deep playoff run, but even making the postseason will cause 2014 ticket revenue to spike. The Pirates can finally substantially raise ticket prices (sorry fans, but they are the third-cheapest in baseball and will likely stay low) and Pittsburghers will line up to pay those prices for season tickets. The Penguins now have a long waiting list a decade after a season in which they averaged 11,877 fans per game.

So it’s easy to see next year’s payroll going to $80 million even if they don’t “make a splash” for Robinson Cano or Matt Garza. Keep in mind: the national TV revenues for every team will double starting next season under the new television contract. The price for top free agents may even skyrocket. Clayton Kershaw will be very happy.

I think the team I have assembled can win 100 games, though they would need as much luck as any 100-win team not named the Yankees or Red Sox. The Pirates’ run production stands to increase the next two seasons as the current lineup hitters (plus Butler) reach their prime and Gregory Polanco enters his sophomore season. The run prevention could remain one of the best in the game, provided by strong defensive play, aggressive shifting and the influx of young talent on the mound.

Even if you are less optimistic and see the roster as an 88- or 90-win team, the payroll space and opportunity would be there to ship some of “The New Cavalry” of prospects (who could start pouring in for the 2016 campaign) for the instant impact of Giancarlo Stanton, Johnny Cueto or Jeff Samardzija.

If you want to spend on a free agent, look at hitters Asdrubal Cabrera, Chase Headley, Pablo Sandoval, Nate Schierholtz and Adam Dunn or pitchers Homer Bailey, Justin Masterson, Jake Peavy and Max Scherzer.

There will be prospect attrition, sure. There will be injuries and unexpected downturns, sure. There is also a franchise with baseball’s best record, one of baseball’s best farm systems and the potential to add millions in revenue.

This is their chance.

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