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First Pitch: Looking at the Pirates’ Projected Payroll For 2016 and 2017

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Typically, following the trade deadline, I will look at the updated payroll, and maybe give a look ahead to the future payroll. I can’t think of a year where this has been more appropriate than this year.

A big part of the Francisco Liriano trade yesterday was about shedding the remaining $18 M of his salary, and putting that to better use in the future. When asked on Monday about whether they would spend the money, and when they would finally spend, Neal Huntington discussed how their payroll has gone up to new franchise records each year.

“The payroll from what was a franchise high I think my first or second year here, to a franchise high in 2012, a franchise high in 2013, a franchise high in 2014, a franchise high in 2015, and a franchise high in 2016,” Huntington said. “The payroll has increased. We anticipate it will continue to increase as we go forward. We felt that this move allowed us more financial flexibility to better allocate those dollars for next year’s club. And while I can’t promise we’re going to spend money simply to spend it, we’ve given ourselves the flexibility to continue to add quality players to this group, and to continue to keep this club in a position to be able to compete, not only for the rest of this year, but for the future.”

There is one disclaimer to that statement. Last night, after recapping all of the moves, I updated the 2016 payroll page to see where they sat for the remainder of the year. They’re currently at about $96.6 M. By comparison, they opened the year with a projected $102.1 M payroll, and finished last year with an estimated $101.9 M. So they haven’t topped last year’s payroll yet, unless they plan to add some guys down the stretch. That said, they would have topped last year’s payroll if they kept Liriano, which probably wouldn’t have been a wise move.

But what about next year? To get an idea of how much they might have to spend in the off-season, let’s take a look at what they’ve got on the books right now.

Under Contract

There are currently nine players under contract right now, with some of them getting guaranteed raises. Andrew McCutchen, Francisco Cervelli, Josh Harrison, Antonio Bastardo, Starling Marte, John Jaso, Jung Ho Kang, Chris Stewart, and Gregory Polanco are all under contract for next year, making around $52 M combined.

One factor here is that the Mets are sending money in the Bastardo deal, which isn’t factored in here, as that amount is unknown. So that could lower the price. Also, if they obviously trade someone here, their salary would come off the books. Jaso would seem to be the only candidate, although they could keep him around as a bench bat.

Arbitration Eligible Players

The current players eligible for arbitration are Tony Watson, Jeff Locke, Juan Nicasio, Drew Hutchison, Jared Hughes, Jordy Mercer, and Gerrit Cole, with the latter being eligible for the first time.

Out of this list, I could see Locke and Hughes either getting traded away, or non-tendered. If Nicasio does well down the stretch out of the bullpen, I could see him coming back. Everyone else is a guarantee to return.

The other five would be making at least $11.273 M, since that is their combined salary this year. When taking a guess at their raises, I could see the amount being almost double that, at $22.25 M.

So the total, with arbitration estimates, and the guaranteed contracts, would be $74.25 M. When you add the league minimum guys to that group, you get an amount close to $7 M, taking the total to $81.25 M.

The Needs

The Pirates don’t have many glaring needs right now. Their lineup is pretty much set. Their bullpen looks like it is also set, with the chance for an upgrade in the off-season in the late innings, although it seems they already added next year’s upgrades at the trade deadline. The rotation has a lot of young candidates for the mix. Here is a look at the likely players for each spot.

Position Players

C – Francisco Cervelli

1B – Josh Bell

2B – Josh Harrison

SS – Jordy Mercer

3B – Jung Ho Kang

LF – Starling Marte

CF – Andrew McCutchen

RF – Gregory Polanco

BN – John Jaso

BN – Adam Frazier

BN – Chris Stewart

BN – Alen Hanson (Out of options)

BN – Jason Rogers (Out of options)

Pitchers

SP – Gerrit Cole

SP – Jameson Taillon

SP – Tyler Glasnow

SP – Drew Hutchison

SP – Chad Kuhl

CL – Tony Watson

RP – Felipe Rivero

RP – Juan Nicasio

RP – Antonio Bastardo

RP – Arquimedes Caminero

RP – A.J. Schugel

RP – Free Agent

I mentioned above that they could use a reliever. I think bringing back Neftali Feliz would be a good idea, giving the late innings a boost. The Pirates definitely have the money to make that type of move, and still address the rotation.

The rotation is the other area that could be addressed. I’d expect Cole, Taillon, and Hutchison in the mix. I don’t know if Glasnow will be ready by that point, although I’d expect him to be close to a call-up. But this is a very young rotation, with a lot of question marks due to the age. The Pirates would have about $20 M remaining before hitting the $100 M mark, and they should be able to go beyond that figure. Even if they spend on a bullpen piece, they should have enough for a very good pitcher.

I have a feeling that pitcher will come via trade. The free agent market looks very weak, and the Pirates still have the prospects to make a trade. A big reason I feel they’ll go the trade route is because Huntington himself came out and said the free agent market looked weak. They also engaged in plenty of trade talks for controllable starters this year at the deadline, and they might be able to swing a deal this off-season when the prices are more reasonable for the more established guys.

I get the feeling that Drew Hutchison is their big reclamation project next year, and I’d expect any pitcher they bring in to provide a little more assurance with his production. They’ve got the budget to take on salary, and they’ve got the prospects to make a trade happen, which means they should be able to land an upgrade to the rotation.

The only other area that could be upgraded would be the bench, although I think they could start to see the prospects take over. I don’t think David Freese, Matt Joyce, or Sean Rodriguez would return with the big years they’re having. I could see Alen Hanson joining the mix, as he’s out of options. I’m not sure on Jason Rogers, as that could depend on the Jaso situation. Also, if the NL adds a DH, that could impact the makeup of the bench.

As I mentioned in the trade analysis yesterday, the Pirates cleared about $18 M in salary by dumping Francisco Liriano. That’s not a bad thing, as long as they spend the money going forward. And with very few needs, it’s obvious where they should be spending that money this off-season.

Of course, the Pirates could use some of their payroll savings to extend players. I don’t know how many viable extension candidates there are on the team right now, and that’s probably a totally separate article. An extension wouldn’t really upgrade the 2017 team though, and I think that’s the key thing to focus on right now.

**I was on the road all day today, making my way up north for a few weeks of live coverage of the lower level teams. I’ll be seeing Morgantown for a series, West Virginia for a series, and Bristol for a series. By the end of this trip, I will have seen almost everyone in the organization (still waiting to see some GCL guys, which will happen when I return). This is always crucial to our long-term evaluations, not to mention the 2017 Prospect Guide. But long before any of that, we will have a lot of reports coming to you. Subscribe to get all of those reports, plus our analysis from throughout the system.

**Prospect Watch: Taylor Hearn Makes Debut in Relief for West Virginia. A rough start for Hearn in his debut in his new organization. He’s one of the guys I’m looking forward to seeing next week when I see West Virginia.

**Barrett Barnes is the Pirates Prospects Player of the Month for July. Barnes is having a great month in Altoona, and at a good time, right when the outfield group thinned out at that level.

**Trevor Williams is the Pirates Prospects Pitcher of the Month for July. Outstanding month for Trevor Williams, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he pitches his way to Pittsburgh by September.

**Elvis Escobar Promoted to Double-A Altoona. Escobar replaces Harold Ramirez on the roster, which is fitting, as they were the big international signings in 2011.

**Morning Report: Thoughts on the Liriano/Nova Deals. John Dreker gives his thoughts on the pitcher trades from Monday.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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