It seemed like every other week this off-season, the same topic would come up: Payroll! There were arguments that the Pirates weren’t spending enough. That they could spend on someone like James Shields over a long-term deal, just because they could afford it in 2015. That they should be spending on the level of the Brewers or the Reds, as if those are teams you want to emulate right now.
It was ironic that the national media kept writing about how the Pirates were one of the best teams in baseball, and were World Series contenders, while the argument in Pittsburgh was only about payroll. It’s almost as if the focus should be on the quality of the team, and not the number on the bottom line.
The Pirates entered the 2015 season with a payroll just above $90 M. Considering their trend of spending about $8 M on in-season moves, they will likely approach $100 M by the end of the year. That’s about $10-15 M less than where the Brewers and Reds ended up last year. But that’s mostly because the Pirates are spending smart, while those teams have some bad contracts.
Take the Brewers, for example. They have Jonathan Broxton making $9 M this year as a set-up man. Meanwhile, the Pirates are paying two of the best relievers in the game — Mark Melancon and Tony Watson — a combined $7.15 M.
The Pirates have what could end up being the best outfield in baseball, making a combined $11.525 M this year. That’s less than what the Brewers are paying Ryan Braun ($13 M) or what the Reds are paying Jay Bruce ($12 M), with both looking like they might be on the decline.
The Reds have Brandon Phillips making $12 M, while the Brewers have Aramis Ramirez making $14 M. Those prices reflect what those players used to be able to do, while their current production doesn’t match the cost. Meanwhile, I don’t think the Pirates have a player who they are paying for past performance, while not getting close to that performance in the present.
There is a common trend here. The Pirates have a lower salary in a lot of these situations because they have a young, cost-controlled team. They have signed a few extensions that ended up very team-friendly, with Andrew McCutchen’s being the biggest one. Everyone in their starting lineup is either under an extension, or in their 0-6 controlled years.
Here is the thing about having a young, cost-controlled team. That team is cheap in the short-term, but if you want to keep them together, then the team is going to gradually get more expensive. The trick is to avoid what the Brewers and Reds have done, where they spend too much on older, declining players and can’t keep their good players. In other words, have fun, Cincinnati, paying a declining Joey Votto $20-25 M per year from here on out while Johnny Cueto walks as a free agent.
The Pirates need to be smart with their spending. They have a contending team right now, and that team is young, and still improving. They need to pay to keep that team together. Today’s extension of Josh Harrison was just one example of that. They locked Harrison up through the 2018 season, while getting options for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. This move didn’t really add to the 2015 payroll, but it locked up a player for the long-term, which in turn boosts the future payrolls.
That last part is going to happen naturally if the Pirates keep their core together. A quick look at the 2016 payroll has them starting at $84.5 M, and that’s before raises to arbitration eligible players like Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Mark Melancon, Vance Worley, Tony Watson, Chris Stewart, Jared Hughes, Radhames Liz, Francisco Cervelli, Jordy Mercer, and Jeff Locke. Granted, not all of those guys will receive offers, and not all of them will be on the team next year. But there will be enough raises to put the Pirates at the same payroll level they’re at this year, before adding anyone new via free agency or trades.
From there, the team will only get more expensive to keep together. And that’s something that never seems to be considered when discussing payroll. The only focus seems to be on the 2015 figure, without any consideration for the value that the Pirates are receiving this year, and without consideration that the same value will decrease in future years as this young club gets more expensive.
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