One of the biggest topics among Pittsburgh Pirates fans is the team payroll. For some, it’s an unavoidable topic due to their market size, but not the main part of the conversation. For others, it’s the conversation, to the point that it seems like all you need to build a winner is spending X amount. Either way, the topic of payroll is news when it comes to the Pirates. Dejan Kovacevic has the latest updates on his site, DKonPittsburghSports.com. He spoke to Frank Coonelly, who says that the Pirates can and Coonelly “suspects will” top $90 M this year.
I’ll get to the 2015 estimates in a second. As for the categories above, I’m more in the former category. I discuss payroll on the site a lot, but that’s because I’m feeding into a market that craves the information. It’s a business decision to keep track of the 40-man payroll all year, or provide future payroll charts, just to have that reference for Pirates fans. In short, it helps me raise my payroll, which I’m sure John Dreker appreciates.
But personally, I hate the topic. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, and sometimes you have to consider payroll when discussing certain things. For example, the Pirates can afford Russell Martin for five years and $82 M. But they can’t really “afford” him, because that’s going to eat a huge chunk of their payroll each year, potentially leave them with a ton of wasted payroll for two seasons at the end of the deal, and these are things that smaller markets can’t do while expecting to compete. That’s a case where you have to consider the payroll as part of the total evaluation.
Then you’ve got the opposite situation, like the reclamation projects the Pirates have had the last few years. As I pointed out earlier in the off-season, they’ve paid, on average, $5.85 M for 32 starts of a 3.21 ERA over the last three years. Or, in total, they’ve paid just under $30 M for 164 starts (5.125 full seasons at 32 starts a season), and got a 3.21 ERA from those combined seasons. That’s why they’ve made the playoffs two years in a row with payrolls that finished in the $70-80+ M range. They’ve gotten massive values from their pitching.
Both situations (Martin’s new contract and the reclamation projects) should be evaluated with the same question: Are they smart baseball moves? That should be number one, and not “will this lead to a bigger payroll?” Of course, payroll does factor in here. But if you’ve got a situation like the reclamation projects, where the Pirates are going “cheap” and still finding success, then it doesn’t matter at all that they’re being “cheap”. The correct word to use would be “frugal”. Or “smart”. Because the Pirates just paid under $30 M for just over five seasons worth of a 3.21 ERA, and one team will pay Jon Lester over $20 M a season for six years this off-season, hoping to get his career 3.58 ERA/3.67 xFIP.
Unfortunately, this is not how things work in Pittsburgh. It’s all about payroll, and spending up to a certain point. A few years ago, it was wondering whether the Pirates would ever spend $70-80 M. We quoted Frank Coonelly back in 2011, saying they could get to that point, although a few things had to happen first. They needed to start winning, the fans needed to increase attendance following the winning, and then they’d be in that range. All of that happened, and they just spent in the $70-80+ M range two years in a row. Now, those comments by Coonelly have been applied to a $90-100 M payroll. And when they spend $90-100 M, it will be over $100 M, or over $110 M, or whatever the Brewers and Reds spent the last two years, because payroll certainly helped them to be better than the Pirates in that time.
And that brings me to the latest update on the subject from DK. Coonelly’s comments that the Pirates will probably top $90 M shouldn’t be a surprise at all. DK points out that the team has steadily increased payroll the last few years, increasing a little over $9 M per year on average in each of the last four seasons. That includes about an $8 M increase from 2013 to 2014, where the total payroll ended up at $82.1 M, according to DK’s sources. We had it at $81.4 M, although our estimates usually have a margin of error of about a million dollars, and have been under million in each of the last two seasons. So if you add $8-9 M from where they were last year, you get $90 M.
Then there’s the fact that they’ve been looking to add a pitcher, and already offered $15.3 M to Francisco Liriano, when many were saying he’d be a guarantee to accept a qualifying offer. If he would have accepted, they’d currently be at about $87 M in payroll. And just because he declined, doesn’t mean they’re done. Neal Huntington indicated when they signed A.J. Burnett that they’d be going after Liriano and Edinson Volquez, although they might have trouble getting both with Burnett in the fold (I have a feeling that’s due to rotation spots, rather than payroll).
In short, the $90 M figure shouldn’t be a surprise. The only way it would be a surprise is if you were totally ignoring the last two seasons (and plenty of people were ignoring the increases, while talking about how the Pirates haven’t increased payroll), or you’re assuming that the Pirates are done for the off-season before the end of November, which has never been the case.
Going back to how you view payroll, the $90-100 M figure is what I expected them to be in this year, just based on what they spent last year, plus what they didn’t spend (they left some money on the table at various times, after missing out on A.J. Burnett in the pre-season, and David Price at the trade deadline). That figure shouldn’t be surprising, and it shouldn’t be noteworthy. I don’t think DK was making it noteworthy, other than the fact that this is somehow a big topic for the Pirates. The real topic should be how they spend the money, and whether they’re making smart moves. If you’re only focusing on payroll, then you’re focusing on the wrong thing.
Links and Notes
**I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving! And if Black Friday deals are your thing, then best of luck out there in the madness today. I noticed this year that my Black Friday deals were way more grown up. Not too long ago it was all about a new TV and a new video game system. Tomorrow? Discounted cat food, a new Christmas tree, and hopefully avoiding shopping for coffee tables at IKEA for like six hours with my girlfriend. I kind of miss the exciting days of the TV deals.
**It’s a day early, but Small Business Saturday is coming up, in which you should support your favorite small businesses (buisni?). I don’t want to tell you how to live your life, but I happen to know one small business that is doing a pre-sale on 2015 Prospect Guides right now — covering every player in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system heading into the 2015 season — and would appreciate you celebrating that day with an order. Or maybe you want to sign up for DK’s site, buy Charlie’s book, or support some other independent site that you happen to enjoy. Either way, it supports small business and independent writers, which is something I’m all for. After all, it’s kind of like supporting the Pirates against the big media outlets like the Yankees and Red Sox. Don’t be a Yankees or Red Sox fan. Buy the Prospect Guide.