Pirates' Payroll Threatens Playoff Hopes

The Bucs could start the season with the National League’s second-lowest payroll, at a time when a little spending could do a lot for their playoff chances.




Pirates Chairman Bob Nutting (l) and General Manager Neal Huntingdon.
Photo by Dave Arrigo, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Pirates
 

“As you see our current core of players — one I have faith in — as they mature, the dollars are going to increase. If that needs to be supplemented, we need to have the flexibility to be able to do that.” — Pirates owner Bob Nutting to Dejan Kovacevic, Jan. 24, 2010

The Pittsburgh Pirates were stuck in 90-loss neutral for seven straight seasons, from 2005 to 2011. They cast off All-Stars including Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez and Nate McLouth while financial documents revealed the team was pulling in $14.7 million per year in profits. And Pittsburghers did not hide their feelings about ownership: "They’re cheap! They don’t care enough about winning!" as losing seasons piled without mercy.

Looking back, the “cheap” label was attached at the wrong time. Those Bucs were mired in last place, and no rational amount of free-agent spending would have made them contenders. If your house is falling apart, you don’t go and buy granite countertops. Drop Albert Pujols onto the 2006 Pirates, and they still finish under .500.

Instead, the Pirates made long-term investments in the proper areas: outspending every other team in the amateur draft, building a new training academy in the Dominican Republic, freeing up payroll that eventually would allow them to sign outfielders Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte long-term.

Smart spending has worked. Back-to-back seasons have included Champagne celebrations for reaching the postseason. And the Pirates’ loaded farm system suggests they might want to buy that Champagne in bulk for future seasons.

As we jump into the 2015 season, everything seems to be looking up for our Buccos. But one thing still holds them back: Right now, when reinforcements are most needed to chase a championship, the ownership is cheap and doesn’t appear to care enough about winning.

The most important time to spend money on Major League payroll is when you are right on the fringe of making the playoffs. That time is now. The goal is to win divisions and compete for pennants, and owner Bob Nutting’s money never had more purchasing power to make that happen than this past offseason.

How do we know the Bucs will be on the playoff bubble? We use projections, specifically three of the better ones available (FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus and Clay Davenport):

Projected Wins, National League

  1. Nationals — 94.2 wins
  2. Dodgers — 91.6 wins
  3. Cardinals — 87.8 wins
  4. Cubs — 84.0 wins
  5. Pirates — 82.5 wins
  6. Brewers — 81.8 wins
  7. Padres — 81.2 wins
  8. Mets — 80.2 wins
  9. Giants — 80.2 wins
  10. Marlins — 79.5 wins

The NL has a clear divide: The Nationals and Dodgers are heavy favorites to win their divisions, and everyone else will scrap for the other three playoff spots.

In particular, the NL Central looks to be a monkey knife fight, with the Cardinals, Cubs, Pirates and Brewers all projected to finish above .500. Enough mutually assured destruction in the Central could allow any of teams seven-10 to swipe a Wild Card spot.

For the Bucs, every win will matter in a sardine-packed playoff race.

That’s exactly why fans should be angry that Nutting has neither provided the money for an impact free agent signing nor given the financial flexibility to add through trades. Has Nutting increased payroll? Yes. Has he done so enough to keep up with his competition? Absolutely not.

The Pirates likely will start the 2015 season with the second-lowest payroll in the NL.

Given that the Pirates’ rotation continues to be their weak spot, where were they on pitchers James Shields ($75 million) or Brandon McCarthy ($48 million)? Was it too much to expect the Bucs to be a bidder for Jon Lester? The Cubs’ signing the established starter for $155 million proved they are looking to knock the Pirates and Cardinals from their playoff spots.

Analysis from Forbes says the Bucs made a $43.6 million profit last year, fifth-highest in the majors. Wake me if the owner ever opens up his books to dispute that.

We must give credit to thrifty general manager Neal Huntington. Under a tight budget, he made sound moves.

Bringing back starters Francisco Liriano (three years, $39 million) and A.J. Burnett (one year, $8.5 million) provided two of the biggest pitching bargains on the market. While the juggernaut Dodgers dropped $62.5 million on Cuban infielder Hector Olivera, a savvy Huntington picked up the younger Jung-ho Kang from Korea for $16 million, including posting fee. If you’re trying to build a Russell Martin from Dollar Store items, you would get something like new catcher Francisco Cervelli. And I mean that as a compliment.

Perhaps the strongest praise for Huntington comes from FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards, whose analysis showed the GM has built the most cost-effective offense in MLB. McCutchen, Marte and Gregory Polanco could be baseball’s best outfield, and they’ll combine to make about the same amount as Liriano.

Add in cost-controlled Neil Walker, Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer, all of whom should be above-average offensively for their positions, and you see some of the master work Huntington has done.

Problem is, the trophy awarded at the end of the season doesn’t read “MOST COST-EFFICIENT PLAYOFF CONTENDER.” It reads “WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS.”

If the 2015 Pirates miss out on a chance to play for that trophy — if they lose a playoff spot by only a game or two — place the blame squarely on the owner of one of the game’s lowest payrolls.

 

 

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