The Pirates are no strangers to adding players and payroll at the deadline. They’ve added players in some form every year since 2011. The only time they’ve subtracted payroll was in 2016, with Ethan Hullihen doing the research.
Payroll added/(subtracted) by Pirates at/around deadline:
2014: $1,137,363 (0 trades)
No value judgements, just numbers. When someone says "they never add salary at deadline", it's not true.
— Ethan Hullihen (@EthanHullihen) July 23, 2018
This year was no different. The Pirates had a projected payroll of $86,903,024 heading into the deadline. Following the additions of Chris Archer and Keone Kela, they have a projected payroll of $89,127,523. That increase of just over $2.2 M isn’t huge, but part of the appeal with Kela and Archer was that they were low-cost guys with years of control.
The years of control is where things get interesting, and where things are much different this time around.
As far as future payroll goes, the Pirates increased their commitments in 2019 from $41 to $48.5 M, along with a $15.75 to $17.5 M increase in 2020, and an extra $250,000 in 2021. Those increases are all from Chris Archer’s salary, with the last two increases being option years, and the reality being that they would pick up the final two years at $9 and $11 M respectively.
I took a closer look at next year’s payroll, doing some early projections for the roster and subtracting the free agents. What I found is that the Pirates are going to be in a position to spend this offseason, even after adding to the team for future years at this deadline.
First, there are the free agents. The Pirates are only losing Jordy Mercer and Sean Rodriguez, which subtracts about $11.5 M from the payroll. Those two losses also don’t subtract any key players. This does leave the Pirates without a shortstop, which is a need that can either be filled by Kevin Newman, or by bringing Mercer back on a cheaper contract.
Then there are the roster decisions. I removed a few of the bench and bullpen guys who are out of options, taking away Nik Turley, A.J. Schugel, and Jacob Stallings. The Pirates could try to find a way to keep any of these guys around, either on the roster or on minor league deals. For the purposes of payroll, these subtractions really didn’t matter, since my focus was having 25 guys on the active roster, and 15 players filling out the minors. If any of these guys stuck around, it would push someone else to the minors (likely a league minimum guy), and the numbers wouldn’t really change.
The big subtractions I made in my projection were option decisions on Josh Harrison and Jung Ho Kang.
First there’s Harrison, who has a $10.5 M club option with a $1 M buyout. It’s possible that the Pirates could pick that option up, although in terms of contract value, it wouldn’t be a wise move. Harrison can be a 1-2 WAR player, and that would justify his deal. However, a small market team like the Pirates would ideally want more production and value from a guy taking up 10% of their payroll. They also have Kevin Kramer in Triple-A as a possible replacement option, along with Max Moroff and Adam Frazier on the active roster. I don’t think the latter two are long-term guys, but Kramer could be, and could be an upgrade over Harrison.
Then there’s Kang, which is a complicated situation. He’s got a $5.5 M option with a $250,000 buyout. I just can’t see the Pirates bringing him back next year at that price when you consider that he hasn’t played in the majors since 2016, and hasn’t looked good in the upper levels in his return, prior to his recent injury. They also have David Freese on a $6 M option with a $500,000 buyout. I don’t see them keeping both guys, and I think they would take Freese over Kang. There’s always the possibility that they keep neither player, but I did project them to keep Freese.
If you subtract Harrison and Kang, you’re subtracting about $15 M in payroll, and like the free agents, not really subtracting many wins from this year’s team. You open up a hole at second base, although that could either be filled by prospects, internal options, or a free agent.
The Pirates would see additions to their payroll, with several players seeing raises from their existing contracts, and a few arbitration eligible players. There are only three arbitration eligible guys, with one of them being Michael Feliz, who I projected at $800,000. The other two are Corey Dickerson ($8,000,000 in my projection) and Keone Kela ($3,500,000).
The end result was that my early projection for the 2019 payroll comes out to just under $79 M, and that’s with the following projected Opening Day roster:
C – Francisco Cervelli
1B – Josh Bell
2B – Max Moroff
SS – ???
3B – Colin Moran
LF – Corey Dickerson
CF – Starling Marte
RF – Gregory Polanco
Bench – David Freese, Elias Diaz, Adam Frazier, ???, ???
SP – Jameson Taillon
SP – Chris Archer
SP – Joe Musgrove
SP – Ivan Nova
SP – Nick Kingham
RP – Michael Feliz
RP – Steven Brault
RP – Richard Rodriguez
RP – Edgar Santana
RP – Kyle Crick
RP – Keone Kela
CL – Felipe Vazquez
For payroll purposes, I have Trevor Williams, Chad Kuhl, and Nick Burdi on the roster. I’m not sure if Williams would be in the bullpen, or used out of Triple-A. I’m not sure if Kuhl will be healthy at this point, considering he was just moved to the 60-day DL. Burdi should still have Rule 5 eligibility. Either way, they are all placeholders for the shortstop and two remaining bench players, with the payroll only changing if the Pirates add someone making more than the league minimum.
Looking at that roster, two things stand out. Number one is that the Pirates have more room to subtract payroll. They could trade Ivan Nova and cut $8.5 M in payroll, which would make room again for Williams or Kuhl (or an offseason addition). Eventually you would have Mitch Keller in the rotation, which means you’d have to make a decision on either Nova or Nick Kingham, and I think I would choose Kingham.
There’s also Francisco Cervelli, who is making $11.5 M, but could be replaced by Elias Diaz. The Pirates might find it difficult to trade Cervelli and his contract, and if they can’t deal him for value, then they should keep him around, rather than trying to dump his contract for the savings. They should keep him due to his production this year, and the hope that he can have similar production next year splitting time with Diaz.
The Pirates could drop their projected payroll to $70 M if they get rid of Nova, or down to about $60 M if they get rid of Cervelli.
And that’s where the second thing stands out. This team doesn’t have a lot of holes to fill. It’s a team that is winning right now, and within reach of the Wild Card, and that’s before the additions of Archer and Kela.
Archer adds a second top of the rotation arm to the team, joining Taillon to lead the rotation. That group is starting to look promising, and should look even more promising once Keller arrives. The Pirates shouldn’t shy away from adding another established starter if they deal Nova, as they don’t want to repeat the mistakes from 2016 where they’re waiting for prospects. However, I’d also argue that Trevor Williams as the fifth starter is a better alternative to the plan they had in 2016, where the fifth starter battle was between Juan Nicasio and Ryan Vogelsong (and Nick Kingham is a better option than Jon Niese at number four).
Kela makes the bullpen look very strong, pairing up with Vazquez in the late innings, and joined by Kyle Crick, Edgar Santana, and Richard Rodriguez as late inning options. The bullpen shouldn’t be an issue for the Pirates to address this offseason.
The current projected holes in the lineup would be at shortstop and second base. The Pirates could either go with prospects (Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer) or bring in outside options. Outside options would move Moroff to the bench, with only one more spot remaining, perhaps for an outfielder (either Jordan Luplow from within, or an outside addition).
The Pirates would have money to spend to fill any holes or to improve the team. Assuming no changes, and a $100 M budget, they’d have a little over $20 M in payroll space this offseason. They’d have about $30 M to work with if they got rid of Nova, and about $40 M to work with if they also got rid of Cervelli.
A lot of people praised the Brewers for spending and adding this past offseason when they brought in Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. The thing is, the Brewers really didn’t end up spending that much, with their Opening Day payroll being under $90 M, and just slightly above where the Pirates were at. The Brewers were starting from a low payroll, and didn’t add much, with Yelich being on a team-friendly deal, and Cain being the only big addition.
The Pirates could now be in a similar situation, and that’s after adding their own version of Yelich in Chris Archer. They’d have room to make a big addition or two this offseason to strengthen their team, while still not spending that much in total payroll. And since they don’t have a lot of holes on the team, they could be very specific with their upgrades.
First thing is first: Let’s see how this team does in their current Wild Card race, especially after adding Archer and Kela to the mix. But after that is finished, the Pirates will have a contending team with the core players still together, along with money to spend to add upgrades to that group.