As I wrote two weeks ago, the Pirates’ whirlwind 2018 offseason ended up to basically being much ado about nothing.

The Pirates traded two of the better players from their 2017 team, angered much of the fan base, set off a hot take wildfire in the media, only to end up with a win total just slightly below where they would have been otherwise, with a higher variance.

Of course, there is another part of the offseason that I only briefly touched on in that post. The Pirates’ moves this offseason, while not having a massive effect on their 2018 win total, did save the club a whole lot of money.

Pirates Prospects is currently estimating the Pirates’ 2018 payroll at $83.8 million. That’s a decrease of over $16 million dollars from 2017 and doesn’t even begin to take into account the one-time payout from the sale of MLB Advanced Media that the Pirates owners received, believed to be near $50 million.

That makes it an open question as what the Pirates’ goals truly were this offseason. General manager Neal Huntington has repeated that the Pirates are trying to win in 2018.

That statement can certainly be taken at its word, but the fact that the Pirates cut payroll by $16 million while being the only club to not sign a major-league free agent makes it seem to many as a bit disingenuous.

It became an ever greater source of angst for many, because of the historically slow MLB free agency process this offseason, as big names such as Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, and Mike Moustakas stayed unemployed into March.

Clearly, the Pirates could have spent some money and dipped into the free agent pool. But it’s not as clear what kind of cost-benefit they would have gotten from that arrangement. Even at this season’s discounted prices, free agent players are still expensive and typically on the down side of their careers.

There’s also the same problem the Pirates have run into when attempting to upgrade their team at any point over the last two years. They’re frustratingly average. The Pirates, as currently constituted, are not a good team. But they also don’t have any glaring weaknesses where a big upgrade would be cheaply made or a spot where one player can make a big difference.

Here are the ZiPS WAR projections of the Pirates eight likely starters:

Marte 2.1
Dickerson 1.7
Polanco 1.7
Harrison 1.6
Bell 1.2
Cervelli 1.0
Mercer 1.0
Moran 0.9

Assuming that they’d have signed a similar contracts with the Pirates, Moustakas (1 year, $6.5 million/2.5 projected WAR) or Neil Walker (1 year, $4 million/1.8 WAR) would have been a nice, affordable upgrades at third base. But the Pirates have high hopes for Moran and have David Freese as a potential platoon option if things don’t pan out.

Beyond that? There just weren’t a ton of cheap fixes. Even some expensive ones wouldn’t have made much sense. Jay Bruce (3 years, $39 million/1.7 WAR) would have basically broken even with Polanco or Dickerson in a corner outfield spot.

The starting rotation seems to be more of a strength for the team, and even higher-priced options like Lynn (1 year, $12 million/2.1 WAR) would only be incremental upgrades.

Taillon 3.1
Nova 2.2
Kuhl 1.9
Musgrove 1.7
Williams 1.3

Alex Cobb is still available. His 2.5 projected WAR would look nice in the Pirates’ rotation and his cost remains unknown. As Tim Williams wrote this week, the Pirates could use another starter. Maybe that’s the play. But he alone won’t provide more than another win or so.

That’s kind of the rub. Yes, any of those signings would have at least marginally improved the team and also have had trickle-down benefits to the bench, the bullpen and provided the team with better call-up options. But it’s also clear that even in a down year for the free agent market, there weren’t a ton of gems available for the Pirates to mine that would have turned what looks like an average team into a dominant contender.

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