How Much Payroll Can the Pirates Trade Away?

Well, as Ron Burgundy might say, “That escalated quickly.”

This wasn’t a topic I anticipated visiting quite this early, but after the entire pitching staff’s performance has seemingly fallen off a cliff, and twenty losses in their last twenty-nine games (as of June 20th) have the team hovering around last place in the division, it may be time for the Pirates to seriously start selling pieces as opposed to buying.

I recently saw a post by a fan theorizing the idea that trading both Corey Dickerson and Francisco Cervelli would “reduce annual team payroll to $45M.” I have no idea what starting figure this person was going off, but it’s obviously a faulty premise the entire way around. These two have combined salaries for 2019 of $20 million. If I’m understanding this opinion—and I’m pretty sure I am—this assumes the Pirates started the season with a payroll of $65 million and would trim $20 million off of that figure with those two trades. First, the Pirates started nowhere near $65 million, but possibly worse is the idea that trades midseason drop payroll by the total amount of a base salary. This incorrect assumption is the basis for this article—how much will payroll go down if the Pirates trade away players at some point this season?

Payroll is calculated on a prorated, daily basis, meaning a team assumes financial commitment for every day a player is on the roster. Therefore, if a player is traded, the money they’ve already paid to the player stays on the books and the remaining financial commitment goes with them. While trading a player certainly comes with monetary gains, it’s not as much as is often assumed.

The following analysis will work off the assumption that every player is traded on the July 31st deadline. That means that the Pirates would be committed to the traded player’s salary through July 31st, and the team assigned the player would take it on as of August 1st, per Article XXIII (C)(2)(b)(i) of the CBA:

If a Uniform Player’s Contract is assigned by any means to another Major League Club, the assignor Club shall be allocated Salary through the date of the assignment and Salary shall begin being allocated to the assignee Club on the following day, regardless of the Player’s reporting date.

Of course, the way things are going, it’s completely possible that the Pirates look to trade players earlier, but since there’s a predetermined date that most trades happen this seems like the fairest way to analyze it. If a player is traded earlier than that, simply divide their salary by 186 days and multiply that by the amount of additional days of salary saved, if you are so inclined.

Another question, however, is who exactly will, or should, the team look to trade? Only pieces heading for free agency, or players that aren’t likely to be around for the next successful Pirates’ team? Some see a window of contention for the next few seasons, while others may not mind if the team completely blows it all up and starts a rebuild from the ground up. We know that’s not exactly the style of the Pirates’ front office, but since it’s at least a possibility, I will include some players who it would at least be somewhat of a surprise if the team trades them at some point this season.

Finally, I won’t only be including straight cash saved as part of this analysis, but prorated portions of signing bonuses and buyouts as well. Those are part of the Competitive Balance Tax payroll calculations, and they would be included in the total that payroll would be going down according to official MLB calculations. Also, while there is money to be saved from possible bonuses and incentives, I won’t be including those here, as they aren’t considered guaranteed.

Without further ado:

Chris Archer

Signed through: 2019 (Club Options for 2020 and 2021)

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $2,567,205 ($2,419,355 Base / $53,764 Signing Bonus / $94,086 Buyout)

This is of course assuming anyone would want Archer at the moment, which should be considered a precipitous fall from the trade deadline last season.

Melky Cabrera

Signed through: 2019

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $370,968

I’m not sure anyone quite saw the production Cabrera has ended up giving the Pirates, and it would probably be a good idea to sell high, even though he’s not going to bring in a huge haul by any means.

Francisco Cervelli

Signed through: 2019

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $3,709,677

In hindsight, the time to trade Cervelli was this past offseason, coming off one of his best seasons. After further concussion issues, it’s hard to imagine teams giving up much of anything for a catcher who’s due to hit free agency after the season.

Corey Dickerson

Signed through: 2019

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $2,741,935

Dickerson is another player who the Pirates would have expected to be able to get more out of this season, both on the field and in any possible trade. At this point, you’d have to think that Dickerson would have to prove his worth on the field again before he could garner much in terms of trade compensation, especially given light returns for players like J.D. Martinez, Jay Bruce, and Andrew McCutchen over the past few seasons.

Jung Ho Kang

Signed through: 2019

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $967,742

Stop me if you’ve heard this already, but underperformance makes it unlikely that Kang would bring the Pirates back a whole lot unless he starts hitting home runs at his Spring Training pace.

Francisco Liriano

Signed through: 2019

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $580,645

One of the few reliable relievers for the Pirates, there’s no reason for them not to explore the market for Liriano.

Jordan Lyles

Signed through: 2019

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $661,290

Unless the Pirates have plans to bring him back, they may be able to extract something of value for this version of Lyles, a reliable starter on a cheap deal.

Starling Marte

Signed through: 2019 (Club Options for 2020 and 2021)

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $3,440,860 ($3,225,806 Base / $107,527 Signing Bonus & Buyout)

I listed these names in alphabetical order, and it just so happens that the three biggest pieces the Pirates have are listed to close this out. While they are the team’s best chance to bring back high-end prospects—outside of pre-arbitration players—they are the players that moving would truly be signaling a new era of Pirates’ baseball.

Many fans and media seemingly wouldn’t mind seeing Marte gone, as he’s seen as an example of unreached potential. That’s just crazy talk though, as he’s one of the team’s best players, and one of the better overall outfielders in the league. It would certainly pare down payroll commitments, however, as he’s slated to be the team’s highest paid player by far the next few seasons.

Gregory Polanco

Signed through: 2021 (Club Options for 2022 and 2023)

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $2,161,290 in 2019 ($1,774,194 Base / $193,548 Signing Bonus & Buyout), $9,200,000 in 2020 ($8,000,000 Base / $600,000 Signing Bonus & Buyout), $12,200,000 in 2021 ($11,000,000 Base / $600,000 Signing Bonus & Buyout)

Another player that many fans are fed up with, it would be interesting to see how Polanco compares to Marte on the trade market. On one hand, he’s under a fantastic long-term deal, but that doesn’t mean much if he’s not able to produce to match his salary. The shoulder injury further impeding his defense probably isn’t helping in terms of another team’s readiness to trade for him.

Felipe Vázquez

Signed through: 2021 (Club Options for 2022 and 2023)

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $1,532,258 in 2019 ($1,290,323 Base / $161,290 Signing Bonus / $80,645 Buyout), $6,000,000 in 2020 ($5,250,000 Base / $500,000 Signing Bonus / $250,000 Buyout), $8,000,000 in 2021 ($7,250,000 Base / $500,000 Signing Bonus / $250,000 Buyout)

Realistically, Vázquez is probably the Pirate’s most valuable commodity on the trade market—one of the best closers in the league on a relatively dirt-cheap long-term contract. The Pirates would probably like to keep Vázquez around, but what good is a closer with no wins to close out, or especially if wins in the near term aren’t important? Many would say closers are fungible and teams should always be open to moving them if the price is right, but it would probably take a Godfather like offer for Neal Huntington to part with his prized commodity. However, if they were serious about a long-term rebuild, it’s a move they wouldn’t hesitate to make.


Adding up the remaining base salary alone in 2019 — $17,741,935 — certainly shows there’s money to be saved; however, working through this list makes the Pirates’ main issue apparent. While it’s possible the team could use to undergo a rebuild, underperformance and injury make their biggest trade pieces not worth as much as would be preferred on the market. Either way, as the team’s chances fall further seemingly by the day, it will be interesting to see which way they decide to play their hand, as it has been hard to put a finger on just what exactly is the club’s long-term plan for some time now.

Come July 31st, we may just have our answer.

A longtime Pirates Prospects reader, Ethan has been covering payroll, transactions, and rules in-depth since 2018 and dabbling in these topics for as long as he can remember. He started writing about the Pirates at The Point of Pittsburgh before moving over to Pirates Prospects at the start of the 2019 season.

Always a lover of numbers and finding an answer, Ethan much prefers diving into these topics over what’s actually happening on the field. These under and often incorrectly covered topics are truly his passion, and he does his best to educate fans on subjects they may not always understand, but are important nonetheless.

When he’s not updating his beloved spreadsheets, Ethan works full-time as an accountant, while being a dad to two young daughters and watching too many movies and TV shows at night.

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