Pirates fans love to talk about payroll.
One of the main features on this site since it started was a payroll tracker, which took a look at the 40-man payroll projection after every move. You can find the 2017 version here.
That feature was added because it seems like every single discussion about the Pirates online eventually discusses payroll in some form. That makes sense, as the small market restraints on the Pirates make the topic of payroll a much bigger issue than it would be for the Los Angeles Dodgers or the New York Yankees. Then you’ve got the “Nutting is Cheap” crowd that interjects that view into every conversation, often to comical lengths.
Not everyone who questions whether the Pirates should spend more is in that crowd (although if you constantly make jokes about Seven Springs, you’re in the group). It’s reasonable to ask if the Pirates can spend more money. The problem is that there isn’t really hard information out there to show what exactly they’re making, what they’re spending on every single aspect inside the organization, and so on. All we have to work with are assumptions, whether it’s projecting the finances, or just going with the assumption that MLB and the MLBPA would have stepped up a long time ago if the Pirates were annually taking millions out of the franchise and out of the game.
This year, however, we have some hard information to work with, or at least as close as we will get to that. As a result, we can say without a doubt that the Pirates have more money to spend going forward, based on events that have happened this year.
A History of the Payroll
The Pirates have seen a gradual increase in their payroll since becoming contenders. That has really gone up the last few years, to the point where they are consistently in the $100 M range.
In 2014, they opened with an estimated payroll of about $75 M, and finished around $81 M.
In 2015, they opened with an estimated payroll of $91.6 M, and finished around $102 M.
In 2016, they opened with an estimated payroll of $102.1 M, and finished around $99 M.
This year was a little different.
The Pirates went into Spring Training with three assumptions — Starling Marte would play the entire year, Jung Ho Kang could return, and Jared Hughes would be part of the bullpen. Marte was suspended 80 games, Kang may never return, and Hughes was released, with only a portion of his salary being paid.
So there are two versions of the 2017 payroll: What the Pirates expected to pay — which we can assume is based on their budget — and what they’re actually paying.
I broke down the Pirates’ 2017 payroll at the start of the season, which gives us a good indication of each scenario. Using that information, we can see what they expected to spend, what they ended up saving, and what they should be able to spend next year with those savings added back in.
What the Pirates Expected to Pay in 2017
On Opening Day, I had the Pirates with an estimated payroll of $98.9 M. This came with a few disclaimers:
**Jung Ho Kang’s salary wasn’t included at that point.
**Jared Hughes was only being counted for his 45 days of termination pay.
**Starling Marte’s full salary was there, obviously, since he hadn’t been suspended yet.
**I didn’t know what the Pirates were receiving from the Mets for Antonio Bastardo. Keep in mind that this remains consistent throughout the study of the 2017 payroll, so any adjustments would adjust all of the numbers.
Kang’s salary would have added an extra $2.75 M. Hughes was signed to a one year, $2,825,000 deal. He only received $694,672 of that after being released.
If you add back what the Pirates budgeted to spend for Kang and Hughes, you get a figure around $103.75 M.
We’re going to go two ways with this figure. First, I don’t think the Pirates were going to be spending around $104 M. I don’t know what they were getting for Bastardo, but I’m guessing that amount brings the total down to around the $100 M figure they’ve been around the last few years.
But the $103.75 M figure is what we’ll use for the rest of this study, since any future projections also wouldn’t include Bastardo, and we’re just looking for the difference in those numbers.
What Have the Pirates Added in 2017?
Here’s the tricky part. Every year the Pirates add to their payroll during the season. This is inevitable. Players get injured, leading to them calling up new players, and having to pay more for the extra players. They add players off of waiver claims, or trade for players with higher salaries. They release players, and are still on the hook for their salary, but then have to pay for the replacement.
Part of what we track each year is all of that movement. It’s usually very simple. You take the Opening Day payroll, and you take the final projection, and do simple math.
This year it gets a bit more difficult with the Marte suspension. I had the Opening Day payroll at $98.9 M. The current payroll projection is at $98.2 M. That looks like the Pirates cut salary. What actually happened was that Marte was suspended, removing just under $2.2 M from the payroll. They also traded Tony Watson, which removed about $1.9 M from the expected payroll.
Between those two moves, the Pirates have saved $4.1 M during the season. That $98.9 M figure at the start of the year would go down to $94.8 M.
The difficult thing about in-season moves is that the Pirates are always making minor additions and subtractions. That means they have subtracted in other areas, which would take the $94.8 M figure lower, and would put their in-season spending total higher. I’m going to avoid an actual in-season total, since that would be complex. Instead, I’ll take a different focus in the next section.
Money Left to Spend
So let’s combine all of the figures we have, and I’ll try to make this as simple as possible.
The expected payroll was $98.9 M at the start of the year.
Adding Kang and Hughes back to that figure puts it at $103.75 M, which we can use as their budget total, since they expected to spend that money (again, I expect it’s actually closer to $100 M, due to the Bastardo factor).
Removing Marte and Watson during the season brings the Opening Day figure down to $94.8 M. Again, they expected to spend this money.
The Pirates entered the season expecting to have Marte, Kang, Hughes, and Watson the entire year. That gives them the $103.75 M figure. With all of the reductions from those four players, they are down to $94.8 M. So they saved about $9 M this year from those four players.
However, they’d also added money during the season, with three additions around the trade deadline in Sean Rodriguez, George Kontos, and Joaquin Benoit. Those three additions amount to $4.65 M in payroll.
This comes with another disclaimer: The Pirates are receiving money for Benoit, which means they’re probably not paying him $2.5 M this year, which is what I have them down for. So let’s count Benoit as more of an in-season move, almost like an expensive waiver claim, and ignore his addition here.
Between the additions of Kontos and Rodriguez, the Pirates have added about $2.1 M this year. We can say that those two additions make up for the loss of some of the Marte/Kang/Hughes/Watson money. But it doesn’t make up for much. There would still be about $7 M remaining to spend.
A Look to 2018
Right now, with all of the players the Pirates have under contract for 2018, and with no arbitration raises factored in, the Pirates are projected to spend $92 M in 2018.
This will obviously go up when arbitration raises for Jordy Mercer, Gerrit Cole, George Kontos, and Felipe Rivero get factored in.
The figure could also go down if they decide to trade or non-tender players. Right now that figure includes $2.3 M for Drew Hutchison, $750,000 for Wade LeBlanc, the $1.5 M option year for Chris Stewart, and who knows what they will do with other players currently under contract.
The figure does not include Jung Ho Kang.
If we assume that their normal budget would be around $100 M, then we could assume that their budget for 2018 should be around $107 M, when factoring in the money saved this year.
If I’m estimating arbitration raises for the big four names above, I’d say that adds about $5 M to the projection next year. So the Pirates should have $10 M extra to spend, plus any additional money they’d get by shedding salary from guys like Hutchison/LeBlanc/Stewart and so on.
How the Pirates tackle their 2018 team is a subject for the offseason. But the takeaway here is that they’ve got extra money from what they saved on Kang/Marte/Watson/Hughes, to the tune of about $7 M. If the 2018 payroll projection at the start of the year is around $100 M or lower again, then it will be safe to say that they didn’t spend the money they saved on those players.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.