BRADENTON, Fla. – The Pirates were once one of the highest spending teams when it came to amateur bonuses. They spent more money than any team in the amateur draft from 2008-2011. They spent $3 M a year on the international side, and that amount didn’t include special situations like Luis Heredia, Harold Ramirez, or other big bonus exceptions.
This was also during a time when the Pirates were still a losing organization, and on the verge of making themselves annual contenders. The MLB payroll was low, which was justified due to the rebuilding efforts. But this meant we never got a chance to see if they could handle spending at those amateur levels while also maintaining a contending payroll for a small market team.
The reason we never got to see that is because the CBA changes in 2012 lowered the bonus pools for the Pirates on the draft and international side. This year, for example, they had a little less than $7.5 M combined to spend on the draft and international bonuses, after failing to sign their second pick, Nick Lodolo. Putting that in perspective, they spent more than that amount in the draft alone each year from 2008-2011. The last few years have seen their payroll jump to $100 M and slightly above, but their success and the existing CBA rules had lowered the chances to spend on amateur talent.
MLB reached a new CBA this offseason, allowing small market teams to spend more. The Pirates have up to $5.75 M that they can spend internationally, and their draft pool will be one of the biggest in baseball due to multiple high picks, including compensation for Lodolo. They are also still contenders, currently projected for a payroll around $100 M. So we now get the chance to see if they can spend at this level in the majors, while also spending at the old levels for amateur talent.
Bob Nutting met with the media today after he addressed the team, and I asked him if the team could afford their level of payroll the last few years while also spending what they used to spend on amateur talent. He didn’t commit to any figures, but talked extensively about how investing in minor league talent was so important.
“That’s the most importance balance we need to be sure we find,” Nutting said. “We cannot lose sight of how essential it is to bring talent into the organization. That absolutely is why we are where we are today. Whether it’s continuing to be very aggressive in the amateur draft or it’s being very aggressive sourcing and finding talent under the new system — which isn’t quite a draft, it’s still a resource cap but a higher one, but a relatively flat cap among all teams. Not only how do we allocate all of those dollars, but how do we make the maximum impact.”
The Pirates were still able to do some things with the draft the last few years, with their limitation being that they couldn’t sign as many prep pitchers as they did in the past. But their international spending was limited by cutting their budget down a third. Now, the bonus pool will almost be double their old budget. Nutting said that teams might use these budgets to sign one or two players, and other teams might take a broad approach to sign a lot of younger players and develop them, hoping a few work out. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Pirates went the latter route, which has always led to their best results.
“As we work through those kinds of discussions, what will be most important is we have great leadership — Rene Gayo has run that program for a long time; Neal has been actively, personally engaged in that program for a long time — to make sure we find the right balance of how we’re bringing talent in.”
The draft has led to the most success in recent years. Their top two starting pitchers were drafted. Chad Kuhl has an inside track for the rotation, and was drafted. Tyler Glasnow could play a big part of the rotation in the future. Josh Bell and Jordy Mercer were drafted. Eventual MLB players Kevin Newman and Austin Meadows were drafted.
Andrew McCutchen wasn’t drafted by this group, but came from the draft. He also came from a darker time in the farm system, where the organization wasn’t focusing on the minors. That’s something that Nutting said they wouldn’t return to.
“At the broadest picture of how we allocate dollars, I think we need to have a commitment never to back away on the amateur draft again. That hurt us for years,” Nutting said. “We have a commitment never to back away on sourcing talent from the international market. We have a dominant position we’ve taken, spent 10 years building that presence. We cannot back away. I told the story recently that my first trip down to the Dominican was 2007. It was an eye-opener for me. It was shocking both the level of our facilities but how far the team of Roberto Clemente had fallen behind. It took two years to get a facility built. It took another five years before the first player who had gone through that full program was prepared to play on the major league club — Polanco. To be able to see a seven-year cycle and commitment play out reinforced that you have to be patient, but you absolutely have to commit to talent acquisition when you can.”
The Pirates can commit to acquiring that talent, and will have some of the highest resources to spend on amateur talent this year. Nutting was very direct about the importance of spending in this area. Meanwhile, they’re projected for around $100 M at the MLB level. There’s no guarantees, and we’ll see what happens, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them spend big on the amateur side while also spending like a small market contender in the majors.