First Pitch: Analyzing the Current Pirates 2016 Payroll Projection

At the end of last week, the Pittsburgh Pirates came to terms with all of their arbitration eligible players, avoiding any arbitration hearings this year. The moves also have the benefit of giving a pretty clear picture of where the payroll is at for the 2016 season. This is a first for this off-season, as any other projections included arbitration estimates, which weren’t exact (the Pirates ended up coming in about $1 M lower after the deals were signed).

We still don’t know the details of Chris Stewart’s extension, which means we don’t know his actual 2016 salary. John Jaso was signed to a two-year, $8 M deal, and without details, I just broke that down as $4 M per year. And the guys with 0-3 years of service time don’t have exact payroll figures, but those shouldn’t change much from the projections. I don’t anticipate any of these three situations impacting the payroll to a large degree, which means the current $96,777,583 projection looks pretty solid.

There have been some figures floating around this off-season that the Pirates will spend north of $100 M this year, with the $105 M figure being the most popular. That would leave a little over $8 M in the payroll budget right now. With the current projection looking sound, I wanted to take a look at factors that might impact the payroll from now until the end of the 2016 season.

In-Season Moves

I have to mention this first, because it’s the only thing the current projection doesn’t include. The $105 M figure, or any figure north of $100 M, leaves out details as to whether the Pirates would be spending that going in to the season, or by the end of the season. And that detail is important.

Last year, I had the Pirates projected for $91.6 M on Opening Day, and had them finishing with a $101.9 M projection by the end of the season. They ended up adding a projected $10 M in payroll throughout the year, and that matches previous seasons where they have added $7-10 M per year in-season.

So if the $105 M is a final figure, then the Pirates would likely finish in their current projected range, leaving money to be spent in-season and at the deadline. This would represent a small increase in payroll from 2015, but not as big of an increase as they’ve seen in previous years. They went from $59 M in 2012 to $74 M in 2013. Then they jumped to $81 M in 2014, followed by the $101 M in 2015. So a $4 M jump from 2015 to 2016 would seem very low compared to the jump in previous years.

If the $105 M figure represents where they might end up by the end of the off-season, then they’ve still got plenty of money to work with. This would also result in an increase in payroll of over $10 M after the in-season moves are factored in. That’s more in line with previous increases.

I don’t know which figure is correct, and we’ll only know that when the off-season is over and the Opening Day payroll projection is in.

Michael Morse

The Pirates have their left-handed first baseman in John Jaso, but the right side of the platoon raises some questions. Heading into the off-season, Neal Huntington talked about finding a left-hander to platoon with Michael Morse. The Pirates added Morse at the deadline last year for Jose Tabata, getting money from the Dodgers in the process. They’re paying him about $4.5 M this year, which is the same amount Tabata would have received.

Normally it would have been easy to say that the first base platoon would be Jaso and Morse. However, the Pirates made another move this off-season, sending Trey Supak and Keon Broxton to Milwaukee for Jason Rogers. While Rogers has played third base and the outfield in the past, he’s pretty much only an option at first base, unless the Pirates want to totally sacrifice defense for his bat.

Rogers has an option remaining, so he could be sent down to Triple-A if the Pirates wanted to go with Morse and Jaso. But it would be weird for the Pirates to do that after trading two of their top 50 prospects to get Rogers. Not to mention, Rogers would have no place to play in Indianapolis, with Josh Bell playing first base, and the rest of the infield looking crowded.

I’d bank on Rogers making the team. It’s hard to say what this means for Morse. The Pirates could try to deal him away, saving an extra $4.5 M, which could be put to better use elsewhere. They could also go with both options, and sacrifice defense at one bench spot in favor of better offense. That wouldn’t be the worst plan, and the fact that they have Sean Rodriguez as an all-defense super utility player makes this possible.

If Morse is dealt, that could impact their potential to add to the payroll before the off-season is completed.

The Bullpen

Prior to last week, I still thought there would be a possibility that Mark Melancon would be traded this off-season. The Pirates were adding a ton of right-handed relief options who were hard throwers. That signaled the possibility that they were loading up in preparation to replace Melancon.

But then Neal Huntington talked about how their bullpen was being set up to boost the rotation, and it now seems that they’ll keep a strong combo of Melancon and Tony Watson in the late innings, while also using all of their external additions as multiple long relievers capable of taking over early for the back of the rotation.

For that reason, I’d expect the Pirates to add a few more bullpen arms, although I doubt they’ll add anyone else of significant cost. The one exception could be a second left-handed reliever. Right now their only options at lefty relief are minor league free agent deals, which doesn’t give them a ton of depth behind Tony Watson.

This is another situation where the future plans are unknown. I could see a scenario where the Pirates spend on an established lefty reliever, or trade for one like they did last year. Then again, this is an organization that doesn’t seem to care about lefty/righty designations, as long as you can get both sides out. So maybe they ignore the second lefty spot in favor of an additional right-hander who can pitch to left-handers, and who can go multiple innings.

The only way I see them spending money here is by adding an established lefty, which I wouldn’t totally rule out.

The Rotation

The current rotation has Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano at the top. Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, and Ryan Vogelsong are starting the year in the other three spots. Juan Nicasio and Kyle Lobstein as depth options. Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon lead a group of prospects who could help by mid-season, with the list also including Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, and Trevor Williams.

By the end of the year, the rotation could look great. But at the start of the year, it currently leaves a bit to be desired.

I have no problem with Niese, as I think there’s a good chance the Pirates get him back to his 2011-14 numbers. I don’t know how Jeff Locke’s mechanical changes will help him, but if they make him more consistent and get him to his best point, then you’re talking about a strong number four starter.

Vogelsong is the move that is puzzling. He seems like a great fit for the bullpen with the current plan of going for guys who can throw multiple innings. Yet the Pirates seem set with him in the rotation. And looking at where they are with the payroll, it seems they could have afforded a better starter, or could still afford a better starter.

I wouldn’t rule out a starter, even though many are considering the off-season to be complete. We’ve heard multiple rumors connecting the Pirates to guys like Mat Latos and Justin Masterson, even after Vogelsong was added. And while the off-season moves are usually wrapping up this time of year, this particular off-season has been slow around the league, leaving several talented pitchers and interesting bounce back candidates remaining as free agents.

It would be disappointing if Vogelsong is in the rotation with the Pirates just shy of $97 M in payroll. We’ll see how that plays out over the next month, and whether the Pirates stay with what they’ve got, or add another arm. I still wouldn’t rule out the latter, especially since the rotation depth at the start of the year seems weaker than recent years.

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2016 Top Prospects: #15 – Cole Tucker. We resume the top 20 countdown, and will be rolling out a player per day during the week from here on out. If you buy your copy of the Prospect Guide, you’ll get all of the reports, along with our grades, and the reports of the 21-50 prospects and every other player in the system. It’s the most information you can find on the Pirates’ system, and the cheapest price you can find for a prospect book this time of year, especially with the Top Prospect and Annual discounts.

**Pirates Are Ranked Near the Top in Defense. The Pirates keep getting top ratings in almost every position and overall category.

**Pirates Sign Catcher Nate Irving. A minor league depth move, which makes sense when you consider how many catchers the organization needs in Spring Training.

**Winter Leagues: Kennelly Reaches Base Four Times in 4-2 Win

  • Call me absolutely crazy, but, if the Pirates have $8M left…

    1. Trade Melancon for the best return possible.
    2. Sign Bastardo for 3/14.
    3. Move Watson to closer.
    4. Move Hughes to 8th inning man.
    5. Move Locke to the bullpen.
    6. With the $8M remaining and the $5M Melancon savings, sign Latos…
    7. With whatever remains, grab Lee, Fister, or Simon…whoever is first/cheapest
    8. Make Vogelsong beat one of the above for a rotation slot. If he can’t, he becomes BP depth.

  • Tim- Since Kyle Lobstein was on Detroit’s 25 man roster/ DL all last season wouldn’t his MiLB salary be around $304,000, and not the typical $81,500 because of the 60 % rule?

    • I think he’s under a split contract, which pays him one amount in the majors and one amount in the minors. I think the 60% rule only impacts his MLB salary, and not the salary he’d make in the minors.

      • Okay, thanks Tim.

        • But I don’t think the minor league pay is 60% the MLB pay. I’ll check on this, but I always thought the minor league pay was straight forward ($41,400 for first year players, $82,700 for second year or anyone with 1 day of MLB service time, $124,100 for third year players).

  • There was a rumor…I think Perotto mentioned it, but that the Pirates might be interested in Cliff Lee. Not sure how I feel about that one, but I think it could be intriguing.

    • Seems like a ton of teams will have interest in Lee though. I’ve seen as many as 11 teams having some level of interest in him, and his price could reflect it.

    • It seems that Cliff Lee was not very focused at all in rehab last year, that doesn’t say much for his fire to return to the game at any high level at age 37

  • My understanding was that 105 million number was for the start of the year, not the end. Hope thats the case.

    • Same situation that we were in two years ago, then NH panicked and traded for Ike Davis. Seems entirely plausible that NH is done until a glaring need arises.

    • The 105 million number was leaked before the warm spell wiped out the ski season from Thanksgiving to the New Year. Seven Springs and Hidden Valley slopes were closed and cash losses there were significant…………enough to cost the Bucs that legitimate third starter.

  • Strange roster management to say the least, unless three first basemen and no fourth outfielder or backup shortstop is some sort of new market inefficiency.

    Feels like they never got traction with any single, focused plan this winter which shouldn’t necessarily be surprising. Almsot impossible to “go for it” and “re-tool” at the same time unless you have cash to spare.

    • The roster is really odd right now. I can’t imagine they’re done yet. Perhaps working out a trade right now to fill a hole or set up further moves?

    • Judging the Pirates off-season in January is like judging a movie 1 hour into it. You think you know if it’s one you’ll recommend or not, but there’s a chance you’re wrong.

      Best to wait until OD to pass final judgment. I know it’s a lot more fun to pretend we’ve got it figured out, but do we really?

      • Just like a month ago when you argued with me about all the rotation option available, right?

        Look, I absolutely do not think this roster is set – I’m not even sure they have a complete 25-man – but I’m talking about the moves they’ve explicitely this winter and aren’t redundant with someone that could be moved. Morse is the only incumbent could be expendable, but also happens to be the only *actual* first baseman on 40-man.

        • do you think Willy Garcia makes the team, becomes the 4th outfielder? His power and arm are intriguing. Doubt he will be able to hit for average though.

          • This is preferential, but I couldn’t pick two worse tools than raw and arm strength for a fourth outfielder.

            His power will be practically unusable in game situations if hes striking out a third of the time against inferior competition and arm strength is completely situational. I’d much rather have contact and speed out of the 4th OF, but that’s just me.

        • Scott Kliesen
          January 19, 2016 1:12 pm

          I will say the roster as presently constructed is curious at best at 1B and in back end of rotation. But as I said, it’s only January.

    • Anybodylike Will Venable? LH, can handle all OF positions, some power, can take a walk, shouldn’t be too expensive.

  • Maybe they should just ask Mike Ilitch for some cash. He’s crazy enough to give it to him. Throwing money away on Upton.

    • You think Ilitch is worried about his bottom line?

      • Going over the luxury tax threshold for a RH bat they didn’t need?

        No surprise they haven’t won anything.

        • Certainly a big investment, but idk about “didnt need”. The now dont have to deal with Maybin in the outfield. With Gose looking like a mostly defensive guy to this point, adding another bat in the OF does make sense for them.

          Certainly overpaid for him, but that does fill a less than stellar position for DET.

        • The collapse is coming, no real reason to not spend more in the short-term.

      • Just so I understand your reasoning. Since one 80+ year-old Owner is willing to spend more than what you believe his budget should be on payroll, than Nutting should do likewise?

        Thought long and hard about that one, did you Jeff?

    • Upton has talent but is a clubhouse cancer. Not sure I understand the Tigers here. Another rh hitter who strikes out a lot?

  • Tim: any chance the Pirates start Jameson, Tyler, or Nick K at the show this year? I’m thinking it is a possible plan B or C should they not find that middle rotation guy on the market. I can’t reconcile Vogelsong as a guaranteed starter on OD roster.

  • I imagine Pirates are trying to get Latos or Masterson to accept a deal for one-year at a low number, plus an option year at a slightly higher figure. Whereas, those guys probably are interested in a straight one-year deal, hope they reestablish their value and have the opportunity to get a multi-year deal similar to Volquez.

    Seems Pirates have a bit of leverage since it’s been a slow developing off-season for FA. Add in the fact they have a reputation of “fixing” Pitchers, and the Pirates have the luxury of being patient and waiting for one of these guys to bite.

    • If I had to pick either of these two guys, it would have to be Latos. He is only 28, and went through a bad year in 2015. He showed some signs of finding some of that lost velocity at the end of 2015, so does he have it inside of him to be a strong pitcher again? I like your thought that we could get either for a low price in 2016 and an option for 2017. Where would you put the number for Mat Latos? The Pirates have been around that $8 mil number for AJ and then Volquez – is that in the ballpark?

  • It would seem an odd decision to keep 3 guys who can only play 1B (none being a defensive specialist).

    • I think Rodgers is holding down 3rd until Jung Ho is ready, but I do agree 1st is a logjam and I really hope they deal away Morse even if they bite the bullet on the deal.

  • If Morse gets traded, does money the Dodgers are paying go with him, or do the Bucs keep it?

    • I believe we could keep it but would need to pass it on to entice another team to pick up Morse

    • My best guess is that Morse signed a contract with the Dodgers that is worth 8M this year and in the Tabata trade the Dodgers agreed to pay 3.5M of Morse’s contract to make the trade. So in effect Morse is on a deal that pays him 8M but 3.5 of it is paid by the Dodgers , regardless of what team he plays for; basically its Morse’s money and not the Pirates’.