Back around the start of the offseason, I received word that the Pirates were targeting a payroll around $75 M. The sourcing wasn’t enough for me to report, but the figure was out there, I assume from the same sources. The figure seemed low to me, since the Pirates opened at $83.7 M last year, and finished closer to $90 M.

Several months later, the Pirates have set their Opening Day roster, and that roster comes with a $77.4 M payroll. Regardless on whether you think the “target goal” of the $75 M range is correct or just coincidence, the end result is that a payroll in that range is not what a team trying to contend should be spending.

Before going on, here are the usual disclaimers to my payroll calculations:

**The payroll doesn’t account for in-season moves. The Pirates typically add about $7-8 M in-season. The increase during the season comes from calling up new guys throughout the year, claiming players off waivers, or adding players via trade.

**The Opening Day payroll doesn’t include projected bonuses. I add those throughout the year when they’re reached.

**I don’t have JB Shuck’s salary, and currently have him as a league minimum guy.

**I use the 40-man payroll, rather than the 25-man. MLB teams use 40-man numbers, and when you see the official numbers come out at the end of the year, they’re always 40-man numbers. You might think that the minor league salaries drive up the payroll (or at least that’s the common argument). The total of all the minor league guys on the 40-man is $581,750 (due to all of the IL guys at the start of the year). As the season goes on, a lot of those minor leaguers will be called up, at which point they’ll be making major league salaries. I always pro-rate the major league salaries when players don’t play a full season.

**The payroll page is updated whenever a move is made. It also keeps track of option years, service time and contract situations. Keep the page bookmarked throughout the year, or find it under the “Resources” tab at the top of the page. If you want to see long-term contract information, check out the Future Payroll page.

A Payroll Suited For a Rebuild

In normal years, you’d expect a $77 M payroll to be the payroll of a rebuilding team. You wouldn’t expect that from a team that won 82 games last year, added Chris Archer and Keone Kela for future years (including 2019, which is one of two full seasons they have Kela, and one of three for Archer), and have a clear window of contention.

It’s not just the Pirates though. This is an issue all around baseball. The Rays won 90 games last year, and are the only team with a payroll lower than the Pirates. The Athletics made the playoffs, and have a payroll of $91 M on Opening Day. Five other teams are below the $100 M mark, although they are coming off 96+ loss seasons, so you’d expect a rebuilding-level payroll.

Just because other contending teams are spending low amounts doesn’t mean it’s justified for the Pirates. It’s to help illustrate that this is a league issue, extending beyond Pittsburgh. But the Pirates are in a unique situation here, with a fan base that is rapidly abandoning the team.

James Santelli broke down that unique situation today, focusing on the lower attendance, and how the Pirates have some big contracts coming up (new TV deal in 2019, new stadium naming rights in 2020) which could lead to more money with a stronger fan showing in 2019.

Unfortunately, the Pirates seem to be missing what the fans are upset about. Back in 2013, when fans had gone 20 years without a winning season, the fans were understandably upset. They desperately wanted to see a winner. And when the team won, attendance spiked. There was renewed interest in the team, with almost 2.5 million fans in attendance in each of 2014 and 2015.

Fast forward a few years later and we’re at the other end of the spectrum. The attendance last year was below 1.5 million, losing a million fans in just three years, and reaching the lowest levels since 1996. The Pirates had a winning season, but it wasn’t enough to generate interest.

The problem that the Pirates are missing is that this isn’t 2013 all over again. The fans wanted a winner back then. Now? Winning isn’t going to be enough.

For years there has been a “Nutting is cheap” mantra in Pittsburgh. The fans in this city are more focused on payroll than probably any other city, which is why the payroll tracker was the first thing I added to this site when I launched it back in 2009. That “Nutting is cheap” angle was comical at times. There was some validity to it, but it was taken to the extremes and turned into a joke to make fun of yinzers who didn’t know anything about baseball and only focused on the payroll.

The problem that the Pirates don’t see is that this mantra has gone from a joke with some truth to it, and has now become the driving issue behind the team, outweighing all other issues. It’s why my first season preview focuses on payroll, rather than the players (that comes tomorrow).

I like this team. They look like an above .500 team, with an outside shot at the playoffs, but likely to end up just on the outside without any changes or big breakouts. The pitching staff is fun to watch, and I believe they’re incorporating some good changes to the hitting side. There should be genuine excitement about this team, at least more than we’re currently seeing.

But fans want to see a commitment from Nutting. The Pirates didn’t go “all-in” in 2015 when they had a 98 win season. I can’t fault them for that. People wanted a big splash at the trade deadline, like David Price. They added J.A. Happ, who was arguably better, and made some other good moves.

This was also a time when small market teams were hoarding prospects, and hoping to win consistently over the long haul. At the same time, the league started to change, with more teams embracing the idea that their window of contention would be limited, and they needed to go big when the window was open. That strategy turned out to be the most successful strategy, while the “infinite window” strategy has led to where the Pirates are now — a .500 team that is never really on the inside track for a playoff spot, and at best probably just on the outside of the playoffs.

It didn’t help that the Pirates had a flawed strategy heading into 2016. That offseason is repeated ad nauseam, and it might have been the pinnacle of where the “Nutting is cheap” arguments showed poor knowledge of the game and the actual payroll. The complaint was that the Pirates didn’t add to their 98 win team and cut payroll. They added and they raised payroll. The problem, behind all of the mislead payroll focus, was that they added low-upside guys and banked on prospects to help them out by mid-season.

This did not fit in with the new “go big when the window is open” strategy. And I could give them a pass for that, since it was only a few months after the 2015 trade deadline, and they were unlikely to change strategies after a 98 win season.

Along the way, the “Nutting is cheap” mantra grew stronger. They let Juan Nicasio walk to save $600,000 and the fanbase lost it, with that move serving as a microcosm of the complaints against the team — that they were only concerned about money. They traded Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole the following offseason, and that further led to complaints.

None of those moves should have focused on payroll. They were losing in 2017, and letting Nicasio walk for a small savings is pretty meaningless. It would fly under the radar as good business for any other team. Trading McCutchen on the downswing of his career wasn’t a bad move, and wouldn’t have been received as poorly if he wasn’t a former MVP here. The key focus there is on the word “former”, as he was no longer that player. The Gerrit Cole outrage should be focused on an out-dated pitching philosophy that prevented them from getting the most upside out of Cole when he was here, and a bigger trade return when he was dealt.

All throughout this process, the fans wanted to see a commitment to the team from the ownership. Then the Chris Archer and Keone Kela trades happened.

August 1st, 2018 had a feeling that Pirates fans hadn’t expressed in a long time: genuine excitement. If you charted the fan morale from 2015 to that date, you’d see a steady decline, getting steeper at the end of 2017, and then spiking to a high on August 1st, 2018.

The Pirates had an opportunity to end the “Nutting is cheap” mantra, or at least send it back to a point where it was more a joke used to identify who wasn’t really following what was happening on the field. They could have followed up with a big offseason and reversed the fan perception in this city.

Instead, they started making comments about how Archer and Kela were part of their offseason additions. And then their big moves were adding Lonnie Chisenhall and Jordan Lyles — two under the radar moves that looked promising before the injuries, but moves that should be more complementary, and less the main focus for a contending team. Finally, they opened the season with their lowest Opening Day payroll since 2014, despite a winning season last year, and the additions of Archer and Kela.

All of this feeds into the idea that Nutting only focuses on money and doesn’t really care about contending. It doesn’t matter if that’s true or not. It’s the opinion the fans currently have, and it’s what is driving them away. I’m not going to be surprised if we see low attendance again this year, regardless of how the team looks.

At this point, it would take a lot of winning to reverse the current mood. A lot of winning as in making the playoffs, and probably advancing beyond the division series. But even then, winning is only hiding the big complaint that has existed since Nutting took over: the idea that he doesn’t care about winning and only focuses on money. Until the Pirates reverse that trend, and prove otherwise, it’s going to be difficult to reverse the trend of the fans walking away from the team.

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