First Pitch: How the Pirates Should Be Spending Money

It seemed like every other week this off-season, the same topic would come up: Payroll! There were arguments that the Pirates weren’t spending enough. That they could spend on someone like James Shields over a long-term deal, just because they could afford it in 2015. That they should be spending on the level of the Brewers or the Reds, as if those are teams you want to emulate right now.

It was ironic that the national media kept writing about how the Pirates were one of the best teams in baseball, and were World Series contenders, while the argument in Pittsburgh was only about payroll. It’s almost as if the focus should be on the quality of the team, and not the number on the bottom line.

The Pirates entered the 2015 season with a payroll just above $90 M. Considering their trend of spending about $8 M on in-season moves, they will likely approach $100 M by the end of the year. That’s about $10-15 M less than where the Brewers and Reds ended up last year. But that’s mostly because the Pirates are spending smart, while those teams have some bad contracts.

Take the Brewers, for example. They have Jonathan Broxton making $9 M this year as a set-up man. Meanwhile, the Pirates are paying two of the best relievers in the game — Mark Melancon and Tony Watson — a combined $7.15 M.

The Pirates have what could end up being the best outfield in baseball, making a combined $11.525 M this year. That’s less than what the Brewers are paying Ryan Braun ($13 M) or what the Reds are paying Jay Bruce ($12 M), with both looking like they might be on the decline.

The Reds have Brandon Phillips making $12 M, while the Brewers have Aramis Ramirez making $14 M. Those prices reflect what those players used to be able to do, while their current production doesn’t match the cost. Meanwhile, I don’t think the Pirates have a player who they are paying for past performance, while not getting close to that performance in the present.

There is a common trend here. The Pirates have a lower salary in a lot of these situations because they have a young, cost-controlled team. They have signed a few extensions that ended up very team-friendly, with Andrew McCutchen’s being the biggest one. Everyone in their starting lineup is either under an extension, or in their 0-6 controlled years.

Here is the thing about having a young, cost-controlled team. That team is cheap in the short-term, but if you want to keep them together, then the team is going to gradually get more expensive. The trick is to avoid what the Brewers and Reds have done, where they spend too much on older, declining players and can’t keep their good players. In other words, have fun, Cincinnati, paying a declining Joey Votto $20-25 M per year from here on out while Johnny Cueto walks as a free agent.

The Pirates need to be smart with their spending. They have a contending team right now, and that team is young, and still improving. They need to pay to keep that team together. Today’s extension of Josh Harrison was just one example of that. They locked Harrison up through the 2018 season, while getting options for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. This move didn’t really add to the 2015 payroll, but it locked up a player for the long-term, which in turn boosts the future payrolls.

That last part is going to happen naturally if the Pirates keep their core together. A quick look at the 2016 payroll has them starting at $84.5 M, and that’s before raises to arbitration eligible players like Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Mark Melancon, Vance Worley, Tony Watson, Chris Stewart, Jared Hughes, Radhames Liz, Francisco Cervelli, Jordy Mercer, and Jeff Locke. Granted, not all of those guys will receive offers, and not all of them will be on the team next year. But there will be enough raises to put the Pirates at the same payroll level they’re at this year, before adding anyone new via free agency or trades.

From there, the team will only get more expensive to keep together. And that’s something that never seems to be considered when discussing payroll. The only focus seems to be on the 2015 figure, without any consideration for the value that the Pirates are receiving this year, and without consideration that the same value will decrease in future years as this young club gets more expensive.

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**Pirates Sign Josh Harrison To A Long-Term Deal

**What Does Josh Harrison Need To Do To Justify His Contract?

  • Great post as usual, Tim. I just cannot understand how you can justify the Harrison signing as you did yesterday, but then write this piece. I agree that paying for past peformance is a bad practice, but so is making a down payment on something when you’re not sure what you’re going to get. What about walker?

    • “I agree that paying for past peformance is a bad practice, but so is making a down payment on something when you’re not sure what you’re going to get.”

      I think those are two entirely different things. Paying for past performance comes with a big risk that you won’t get that performance in the future, especially with older players (which is what most of FA is). Extensions usually cover guys in their prime, which means you’re either getting the same or better performance going forward. You’re gambling here, but you’re on the right side of a player’s development curve.

  • pilbobuggins
    April 9, 2015 2:01 pm

    There is a stat for everything in baseball except for the things that matter most in baseball. Heart, hustle and mind. This understandably drives stat guys crazy because they can’t quantify it. And that is what makes baseball a beautiful game, all the intangibles that should not happen yet do.

    • Luke sutton
      April 9, 2015 2:33 pm

      Actually, most stats guys dont go crazy over that stuff. I dont know many that are in that career field that regularly go “man, i hate that i cant quantify everything in (x sport)”. Seems both sides can coexist if they would just stop trying to take digs at each other.

      • pilbobuggins
        April 9, 2015 11:49 pm

        I actually enjoy stats and look at them quite a bit. They are the foundation on which baseball is built. Baseball is and always will be a mental game, at least from the player standpoint, the numbers are usefull to the coaching staff and scouts to gauge a player and to stat guys to give them something to do besides sitting in the hot sun enjoying a game or heaven forbid actually playing in a game.

    • I think what matters most is talent.

      • pilbobuggins
        April 9, 2015 11:45 pm

        If your in the mlb the talent is a given, what a player does with said talent is the question.

  • 27th in revenue, 26th in payroll. Those that don’t get it are usually stuck in the past and looking for reasons to continue hating on the ownership for 20 years of frustration they just can’t let go of.
    Thank you Mr. Nutting for hiring the right people to manage the Pirates and giving them the resources and vision necessary for a small market team with the deck stacked against them to be successful.

  • Any payroll discussion usually devolves into a bunch pyromaniacs in a field of straw men. I think this is a fair take, I agree you have to consider where a team is in its life cycle instead of just making one year snapshots.

    I’m a little more charitable and don’t think those who bring up the Reds and Brewers payroll, are calling for Votto, or Bailey like deals. I’m not going to die on any hills based on outside numbers but the Pirates are at the lower end as it concerns percentage of revenue devoted to payroll.

  • Great points Tim! Hopefully the Pirates will maintain the discipline to keep the course on what they have been doing for the long term. If they are willing to let good players like Neil Walker or Pedro Alvarez go rather than signing them long term to a post arbitration years contract that takes them into their mid 30s that will be a good sign. The only position players that the Pirates should even consider signing to a second long term contract are future Hall of Famers like Cutch.

  • Tim: I think Braun should also be getting a $2.5 mil signing bonus in 2015 as a part of the extension he signed in 2011. I like this guy’s contract because it is a bell curve getting more ($19 mil) during the projected high production years of age 32, 33, 34 and then going down in his age 35 year to $18 mil and his age 36 year to $16 mil.

    Additionally, he has $18 mil of his contract deferred from 2016 thru 2020 and then payable, without interest, in 9 equal payments annually beginning in 2022. For instance, in 2016 when his contract reads $19 mil, he will actually be receiving $15 mil with $4 mil deferred.

    • Braun is currently on a distinct decline, he is far from worthless but I wouldn’t want to be paying him $100 million no matter how it is structured.

      • pilbobuggins
        April 9, 2015 11:54 pm

        .280 25 homers and around 80 rbi is a good player and for the brewers that is what they are paying brauns salary for. When what they thought they were getting was .300 40homers and around 100 rbi. In short I’m agreeing with you.

    • When did ages 32-34 become “high production years”? They’re better known as “the beginning of the end”, if not the end itself.

  • What they need to do is not spend money on a jabroni like Radhames Liz. Guy sucks big time, that’s why he’s been in Korea and the DR the past handful of years. He isn’t good enough to play pro ball in the states, yet NH thought it smart to give him a guaranteed contract and roster spot. They need to DFA him immediately before he can cost the Pirates any more games.

    • Because one game is all that’s needed to determine this?

      • I gave up on Liz the second he was signed. I said all offseason he’d suck, so far I am right.

    • Jabroni, ftw.

    • That comment is purely idiotic. If he pitched awful all spring then maybe you’d at least have something to base it on, but it isn’t even like he looked horrible yesterday. Hell Watson and Cole were each worse in their first appearance. Just don’t make these comments until he pitches at least ten games unless you just like looking ignorant and ridiculous

    • Luke sutton
      April 9, 2015 2:30 pm

      Yeah, spending a whole 1-2 million is going to really make it tough on the team. Maybe more than 1 game before he sucks.

    • You don’t get to criticize a guy and call his comment “idiotic because there is no support for it,” because you have no support proving that Liz is a valuable or even playable asset.

      You can sit there and say you trust the pirates scouting all you want, but that’s not evidence. Simply say there isn’t a real basis backing what he said. When you say it’s idiotic it’s like you’re implying that he’s wrong and you have no more basis than he does.

      This comment could have been phrased better, but it needed to be said. I agree. You’re telling me there weren’t better internal or external options than Liz, or Scahill?

      • Well in that case you don’t get to criticize my use of “idiotic comment either. Realistically- what is a better use of “idiotic comment” than in reaction to a baseless and inflamatory comment. The idiotic portion of his comment is where he says “he should never be in pro ball” and that we should “dfa him immediately before he loses us more games”- you can’t defend that unless you yourself, are an idiot

      • That would have been an intelligent question and not an idiotic comment or question. That was not what he was saying, not even close. I don’t really see how either of them are bad bullpen options, and maybe Holdzkom is better, but his previous track record is horrible, as is caminero. Bullpens are not built based on previous success, as pitchers are too unpredictable from year to year. ask tim, he’s written many articles about it. You sign a bunch of players at a reasonable price with good stuff, and put the pitchers out there who can succeed at the role you need them too. Liz is a long reliever, whom did we have as a better option for that role currently? I’d like to hear it. How about back end relief pitcher? What, you want Pimental? I mean comeon. We are probably going to use 12 relief pitchers minimum over the course of a season not counting september callups, so we need ALL of them. Might as well suck it up

  • pilbobuggins
    April 9, 2015 4:01 am

    I have often questioned giving aging veterans 20-25 mil contracts when stat wise they should be getting less, you can’t blame the players for taking the contract and the owners of the teams have too know they are paying at least a 100 mil for at best 2-3 years of production from these guys then it’s pretty much sunk cost for the rest of the contract. To me it’s a bassakward way of doing business but hey it’s not my money they’re wasting so more power to ’em. It looks to me like the pirates brass has taken a course in real world business 101 as opposed to college classroom controlled enviroment business. One is smart the other is grasping at straws, you decide which one is the better model.