Breaking Down the Pirates’ 2017 End of the Year Payroll

As part of our wrap up of the 2017 Pirates season, we turn to everyone’s favorite topic: Payroll.

The Pirates’ payroll gets dissected like no other team in baseball. Whether you believe that Bob Nutting is holding back dollars to spend, or just that the small market atmosphere doesn’t provide enough, the end result is that their payroll is lower than most teams in the league, which makes it difficult to compete.

We keep track of the 40-man payroll each year, trying to figure out how much the team has to spend based on historic results. This year they finished with an estimated $99,338,487. A few disclaimers on that total:

1. So many of the salaries are unofficial, especially with the league minimum players who weren’t on the team on Opening Day. It also doesn’t include some unreported bonuses. For example, we included Ivan Nova’s $1 M bonus for making 30 starts. However, David Freese has $1 M in bonuses based on plate appearances. He had just over 500 plate appearances, so he most likely received a large amount of that bonus.

2. This year provided a new challenge. The Pirates received money from Antonio Bastardo in last year’s trade, and received money from the Phillies for Joaquin Benoit in this year’s trade. The totals are unknown, which means the payroll number would go down.

3. Up until last year we’ve been fairly close to the AP numbers. The numbers in 2015 were a bit of a bigger gap than before, due in part to money that exchanged hands in trades. Overall, I’d assume the totals here have a variance of a few million, until we get a more official number. Here are our totals the last five years versus the AP totals:

  • 2016: $98,793,492 (Pirates Prospects) vs $109,671,516 (AP)
  • 2015: $101,914,526 vs $95,889,960
  • 2014: $81,394,476 vs $78,379,602
  • 2013: $74,460,458 vs $74,608,266
  • 2012: $59,465,742 vs $61,300,313

I’m guessing our $99,338,487 number is missing a few performance bonuses and other payments, which would push it above $100 M. At the same time, I’m guessing the money received from the Mets and Phillies for Bastardo and Benoit would push it back down to somewhere in the range of $95-98 M, depending on how much they received.

They did intend to spend more at the start of the season. These figures don’t include the $2.75 M they saved on Jung Ho Kang’s salary this year. They also don’t include the $2.2 M they saved on Starling Marte from his suspension. Jared Hughes is only credited with $694,672, instead of just over $2 M before he was released in Spring Training.

Without those three cuts, and with a stronger contender this year, they might have been close to last year’s AP figure, and realistically closer to $100 M when you factor in the money they received for Bastardo and Benoit. It’s hard to say that they spent that money elsewhere, as most of their spending was on typical in-season moves, and they traded away more salary than they added at the deadline with the Tony Watson deal. So if the Pirates are looking to spend that extra money from Marte, Kang, and Hughes, they haven’t done it yet.

Tomorrow I’ll be taking a first look at the 2018 payroll as we head into the offseason.

  • Of the 12 teams in playoffs, 5 have payrolls below top tier teams, AZ, CO, Cleve, Hou, & Minn. To say payroll budget makes it hard to compete is fake news.

    Pirates haven’t competed last two years because of poor performance of top players and prospects. Not because of payroll budget.

    • Every one of those teams has a payroll at least $20 million higher than the Pirates. Of course performance matters. But every one of those teams has been willing to spend 20% more on talent than the Pirates are. If you think that has no bearing you’re nuts.

      Here is a research project for you. When was the last time a team won the World Series spending less than the league mean? If I recall correctly it’s more than 50 years. When was the last time a team won the World Series spending 2/3 of the mean or less. That I don’t know but I believe it was never.

      • I love the mythical $20 million myth because it always is followed by using this money to acquire available players who exceeded expectations.

        Here’s a fact, every year there are top tier payroll teams who make the postseason, and their are top payroll teams who don’t. And every year there are bottom tier teams who make the playoffs, and bottom tier teams who don’t.

        Do you honestly think the Giants, Tigers, Angels, Mets, Mariners, Rangers, etc. didn’t make playoffs because of their payroll? Newsflash, they failed for same reason Pirates did this year, their best players didn’t meet expectations due to poor performance and/or injury, suspension.

        Payroll provides additional options, but guarantees nothing!

        • I never said payroll was the sole factor in determining success. You said “to say payroll budget makes it hard to compete is fake news.” That’s just silly.

          There’s nothing magical about $20 million. It just so happens the Diamondbacks spent $20 million more than the Pirates this year. So did every other team making the playoffs and more spent above the average than less. Those are facts.

          And curious. Does any team fail because they just don’t have enough good players? It seems to me that every year the teams that win the most have the most good players playing well. So it seems to me that managements job is to acquire the most good players it can and to put them in the best environment to play well. Right?

          • We can agree payroll is a contributing factor to success. Where we disagree is the degree it matters.

            Only a fool would believe the success enjoyed by Royals, Indians, Pirates, and Rays, to name just a few teams, over the last decade was driven by payroll. Drafting, development, and player performance is the common denominator for all of these teams.

          • It doesn’t make it hard to compete- it makes it much harder to win championships. There is a huge difference.

        • You mean you can’t get a World Series guarantee in the winter based on projected payroll??? Who knew!??

      • Houston is a great example. At one point they had the lowest payroll but once they started to compete they put the money into the team. Pirates had that chance but instead took the money out.

      • Kansas city?

    • oh come on. Of course it makes it hard to compete.

      someone saying it makes it impossible to compete is, indeed, fake news.

      but of course it makes it hard to compete. if you give Huntington an extra 20 million (an extra 20 percent to play with), i’m sure that team wouldve looked pretty different on opening day.

      • But he said fake news so he’s smart and knows what he’s talking about.

        • good point

          • Scott was saying that payroll didn’t matter when the team was still spending in the $70m range, yet every time I call him on this he ignores it instead of explaining how in the hell they could’ve cut ~$25m off this payroll and still kept those “top players” that didn’t perform.

            He still seems to think it’s 2005 and big money teams are dumb-dumbs who only sign veteran free agents.

            Reality: big money teams are just as smart as the Pirates, and use their financial advantage to out-compete them for talent on and off the field. I truly don’t understand the mental gymnastics it takes for one to willfully ignore this.

            • i have an issue when someone says that the issue is all one thing or all another thing. Multiple things are allowed to be true.

              the problem is partly that the players didnt perform and/or have hamstrings made of Twizzlers pull-&-peel. the problem is partly a lack of aggressiveness by huntington. the problem is (probably) partly the owner. the problem is partly a lack of revenue. the problem is partly the terrible 2009 draft. the problem is partly that Kang and Marte are morons.

              of COURSE payroll matters. of COURSE player performance. of COURSE… yada yada i could go on.

              • You are correct. Multiple things have contributed to the Pirates poor run the last 2 seasons.

                I would add that the inability to draft/acquire/develop young talent has not only been a primary contributor to such recent misfortune but will be an ongoing problem going forward. Which is why these 4 year extensions were anything but well deserved.

              • Exactly right. Money is just one piece of the puzzle, and it’s far from the biggest piece.

              • Yep. Couldn’t agree more.

            • Not only are big money teams as smart(or smarter see Dodgers) than Pirates a lot of them draft, acquire young talent as well or better than the Pirates.

              I’m a bit stumped as to what NH and co do better than most teams these days?

            • Thanks for putting words in my mouth. Remind me next time I need a spokesperson to ask for your resume.

              Please tell me oh wise one why the super smart and rich Giants failed this year even worse than the Pirates? Listening to you, one would think hiring intelligent front office personnel and busting the bank to pay players would guarantee success.

              Could it be they sucked because their players sucked?

      • Wouldn’t have mattered this season at all! Guaranteed!

    • I would like to second this. The team didn’t perform. Seems like the only guys who really showed up start to finish were Rivero, J-Hay, Bell, and sort of Cole. Williams also proved he belonged. Looking around the diamond, a lot of positions fell short of expectations.

      That said, I would really like to see this team get back to what made it good from 2013-2015: pitching and defense. I think they have the assets to trade and overhaul the roster without blowing up payroll. Cutch, Cole, Frazier, and maybe Glasnow (although he value is probably too low right now) have value and could be used to acquire players that are solid hitters (even if they aren’t great ones) that play good defense. Frazier is a good hitter but doesn’t play defense, same is true of Cutch. Cole just seems like a logical choice seeing as he is gone in two years anyway. it might even make sense to see what teams are willing to pay for Bell. I think Bell will be a stud (any return would have to reflect that expectation), and his defense did improve quite a bit throughout the year, I am just thinking of bold moves that might be necessary to assemble the team where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That is where the Pirates did so well in their good run a few years back, and that is the best way to handle the current situation in my opinion.

      • Lots of pretty good 1b in FA right now. Finding a team that’d give a lot for Bell, and signing a Yonder Alonso or Mitch Moreland or something could be the kind of bold thing that this team needs.

      • I agree with you that trading Cole at this time is a logical move to make. Could we land a potential 30/100 corner outfielder that’s controllable for a few years for him? That would make Cutch expendable for AA prospects that could help in a year or two. Also, trade JHay and Cervelli and use that money to sign a quality starting 2B or C, not both. Fill the other with Frazier/Diaz. This assumes Kang comes back. Then we’d have Bell/30 guy/Kang in the 3,4,5 and could maybe generate some runs with Marte, if he develops some plate patience, and Frazier setting the table. Polanco in the 6th spot isn’t terrible if he can stay healthy. Lot of “if’s” on this team, but something drastic needs to be done because the status quo is not cutting it.

        • it’s shocking that so many people are in favor of trading Cole. Nobody else on the team has a realistic shot at cashing in an ace-level season.

          If they want to be good next year, then they need Cole.

          Now, if they decide to do a full rebuild for some reason, then of course trade Cole.

          • “i have an issue when someone says that the issue is all one thing or all another thing. Multiple things are allowed to be true.”

            ^that guy has some good advice! 😉

            • haha i like what you’re doing, but i’m not sure i follow how i’m being inconsistent.

              is your point that they could trade cole and get another really good pitcher elsewhere? Because i’d obviously be in favor of that too.

              • I don’t think there’s any reason trading Cole inherently triggers the nuclear option.

                To me, there’s a middle ground where they acknowledge the 2018 club isn’t good enough to go “all in” but also acknowledge there’s too much talent in the org to completely tear it down.

          • Eric, I think the team needs help offensively. I’m assuming Kang isn’t coming back. If they trade Cole they at least have some other SP options. Before I trade Cole, I need to feel good about Nova. With Nova, Tallion, Kuhl and Williams I have 4 SP who can pitchers who I have some confidence in. I have several pitchers in AAA who can fill Cole’s spot. You are right about the ACE part. But if the team is legit at the deadline, I consider overspending in a trade to bring in an ACE. You can kick the tires on Marte’s trade value, but not sure he has the value right now. Cutch only has one year left. Not much value there. Harrison has more value to the Pirates than he does for other teams. Rivero would fetch a haul, but they have no one to take his place. But I could argue that closer is the least important position for a team re-tooling.

      • You had me interested til you said trade Bell. No way I trade him. He is the face of the franchise going forward. You have a 3 year window with him. At the end of the 3 years he will have 2 years of control left. Then decide to keep or trade him. Now if the team is one of the worst in baseball in two years you can look to move him sooner. 1b don’t have a lot of value. Too many really good ones.

    • I agree with the basic point here — that using budget constraints as a constant excuse for poor performance is an overused, tired excuse. That’s the system. Do better at what can be controlled — scouting, developing, smart FA decisions, great coaching. I’ll also say that sometimes you make an investment betting on future results. It would be interesting to see a study that discusses ROI of player investment of one kind or another. For example, bumping up the payroll — what did that return in the way of better record? Higher revenue? I’m sure it could backfire if the money isn’t spent wisely.

      • This is the elephant in the room. While difficult, small market teams CAN compete with large market teams(see the Cleveland Indians). However you need to be well above average drafting, acquiring young talent. NH simply does not excel in that area.

        • Scott Kliesen
          October 3, 2017 11:36 am

          No denying the organization philosophy of drafting versatile position players and tall project able RHSP has not yielded desired results. What’s debatable is if it’s the plan or the execution of plan that’s the problem. I lean towards execution of plan.

          • I’m not sure if it’s plan or execution(or both) but not really sure how much it matters. Either way the end result is this team does not even approach being above average getting cheap production from young players which is the lifeline for a small market baseball team.

        • Couple things

          1. Cleveland spends on Free Agents
          2. You keep pounding this drum of can’t draft/develop. I just don’t see how this can be true when he’s had all these top farms and good rookies come through since he’s been here. You can’t build a team solely on the draft, but to say he’s been dogshit with drafting guys, I think it’s just part of your Huntington narrative.

      • I sure hope someone in the front office is already doing that study.

      • I agree with the basic point here — that using budget constraints as a constant excuse for poor performance is an overused, tired excuse.

        Serious question: Does the front office ever use this? They talk about challenges, but ultimately say they can win. Or so my recollection goes. (My recollection has been known to be wrong on occasion.)

        • Yes they do mention budget constraints frequently. However, my reference here was to fans.

    • Also those teams have a willingness to use the system to acquire talent to help them compete. The pirates do not.

    • michael schalke
      October 3, 2017 9:47 am

      Exactly right!!! Couldn’t have said it better.

    • I might add poor management to. I saw that Toronto traded Lirano and picked up a prospect from Houston that hit something like 7 HRs in September. That’s how teams with good management get it done

      • Toronto took Aoki (to help offset the salary) and a guy named Hernandez who hit 8 HRs in 95 at bats for Toronto. (.908 Ops)
        He hit .279/.369/.485 with a dozen homers and a dozen steals through 347 Triple-A plate appearances, so take the power surge with a grain of salt. He was Houston’s 9th rated prospect.

        In a sense, it was similar to the Pirates trade. Instead of offsetting salary they traded prospects for Toronto to take on the salary. (Taking Aoki was akin to sending Houston cash.)

        The Pirates got a guy who was the opening day pitcher for Toronto that year.

        • “…who was the opening day pitcher for Toronto…”

          This is the new “Jeff Locke was an All Star”, isn’t it? 😉

          • 🙂

            I was actually using that to mute the expectations the guy Toronto got back OPSing .908 over a month.

            But, that’s a very valid analogy as well!

    • I agree. And whose fault is that?

      I am curious to follow this situation.

      Last year, our below .500 record produced new assistant coaches.
      Will there be coaching/management changes for 2018?

      • Scott Kliesen
        October 3, 2017 11:44 am

        If I had to guess, I would say no. I believe, based on NH’s comments, they believe they have talent to compete next year. Plus, as extensions to NH & CH show, BN is satisfied with management of baseball operations.

    • Does drafting, signing international talent, making good trades, or astute FA acquisitions have anything to do with those teams making the playoffs?

      As a dedicated NH supporter you should be MORE pissed off that a lot of these teams(including the Dodgers) have greatly benefited from cheap, young talent and that NH has not been able to get the same sort of production.

      Quite frankly, I would be more supportive of Neal if I felt the only reason we were so damn lousy was because of money. Sadly, that’s only part of the story.

      • Scott Kliesen
        October 3, 2017 11:22 am

        I generally agree with this statement, but I would lay the Lions share of blame on those under NH. We don’t do near good enough job in developing the talent acquired.

    • To say payroll budget makes it hard to compete is fake news.

      I somewhat disagree with this statement. Let’s look at KC. Two years ago they wont he World Series. They already had to trade players to make payroll this year and look to have their team decimated by free agency this off season. They finished a game under .500 this year.

      The can’t afford to offer them all the QO in risk of all of them taking it.

      So, yes it can be overcome, but it can’t always be sustained.

      The Cubs, OTOH can sign a guy like Heyward and get little offensive production out of him and still win the World Series becuase they could also afford a few extra pitchers.

      So, while money is hardly the deciding factor, it sure can make it easier to absorb a mistake.

      • Scott Kliesen
        October 3, 2017 11:25 am

        Sustainability is a whole separate matter. Clearly this is where importance of money has more influence.

        • Steven Blemker
          October 4, 2017 2:43 pm

          Ok Scott, well aren’t we talking about sustaining a team that won 98 games two years ago? The actual fact is that the Pirates could have been the Royals two years ago, but the Cardinals won the most games in all of baseball.

  • Well you could say look no further than the payroll for an explanation 75 – 87! Of course Kang and Marte didn’t help matters nor did it help that Glasnow couldn’t throw strikes! Those 3 alone account for sub-.500 finish!

    • Add in the cancer treatment for Taillon, sub-par starts by McCutchen, Cole, Polanco, Mercer, Watson and others in the bullpen.

      • I agree. It sure seems like the Pirates lacked talent from top to bottom. They weren’t close to contenders this year.

        • Well they were in it at the break…technically. But the acquiring of Benoit at the deadline just wasn’t quite enough to put them over the top.

          • “Wasn’t quite enough?”

            They finished 17 games behind the Cubs for the division and 12 games out of the Wild Card. They were never really close to contenders.

        • Lacked talent, or was it the talent they have lacked? I choose the latter.

          • Isn’t that kind of circular? You are blaming players for underperforming but you put no responsibility upon management for unreasonable expectations to begin with or for failing to respond when things went South.

            • No it’s not circular, because players like Cutch, Cole, Marte, Polanco, Watson, Hudson and others have all played much better in years past than they did this year.

              • Yes, it absolutely is circular.

                This was projected to be a .500 club, at best, with all that talent performing to expectation. “FAKE NEWS” is pretending they’re better than they are – without a shred of documented evidence – and absolving those responsible for putting the club together of any blame.

                • I really hope the Pirates find a way to win 87+ games next year and make playoffs. Sadly I think the most likely outcome is somewhere near 79-80 wins and IF that happens I can only speculate as to the “intellectual” gymnastics which will be performed to defend NH at the time. I do think a lot of reasonable people are no longer drinking the koolaid but suspect there will always be a dedicated segment of true believers.

              • C’mon. I’d say you got exactly what you could reasonably have expected out of Cutch, Cole and Watson based on last year’s performance. Expecting much more would be Polly Anna. Polonco had an unusually bad year, I agree, and Marte didn’t play. Of course you put no responsibility on management for failing to get better options in the outfield once Marte was suspended. Right?!?

                • Players are ageless wonders who never decline. – N. Huntington

                • Expecting guys in their prime to bounce back after substandard years is PIVOTAL in being competitive when you have a payroll obstacle to overcome. Cutch did, Cole, Hudson, and Watson underperformed last year’s performance and their best performances by leaps and bounds.

              • Not Hudson he played the same as last year

    • Not really. It’s really hard for me to believe that a full year of Kang and Marte wouldn’t have amounted to 8 additional wins. Williams pitched fine as Glassnow’s replacement. The best the Pirates were going to do this year with Kang and Marte was around.500 in my opinion. They lacked talent top to bottom and they won’t be better next year unless they add significantly to the team. It will be tough to add talent if they are only willing/able to spend 2/3 of the average payroll.

      • You are exactly right. Whats funny is if Kang is back and u project arb. #s (Cole at 10 mill, Mercer at 8.5/mill Rivero at 3.5/mill and Kontos at 3/mill) They r already at the 100 mill self imposed cap and still in need of right and left relief pitching. If they can’t trade Cutch and his 14.5/mill, bye to Josh H. and his 10.5/mill and prob. Freese if somone will take his 4.5/mill. Stuck with Hudson’s 5.5/mill sadly.

      • You are missing the domino effect- Give those Pirates 5 more wins than they had around the trade deadline thanks to having Marte and Kang, and we do COMPLETELY different things at the deadline. This means the rest of the season from that point onward cannot be compared to what we finished after the deadline.

  • Man, I looked over those numbers and what I saw
    was a lot of wasted money. I wonder if there are
    any national experts out there who analyze the
    value a team gets for the salaries they pay
    for their payroll. I could be wrong, because
    I am not an expert at these type of things.

    • Brewers cleaned up there

      • Tell us more. How did you arrive at that conclusion? I’ve often wondered how it is that some clubs, e.g., Brewers, which seem to be headed in the wrong direction are able to turn things around. What am I missing?

        • *Expecting* to be pretty crappy while rebuilding actually allows for a certain amount of freedom. The opportunity to throw a bunch of Sogard’s and Thames’s and Pina’s against the wall and hope some stick. When they do, all the sudden you have a club that seriously punches above their weight.

        • I think the Brewers have a bunch of players working on proving them selves. To quote Sparky Anderson: Just give me 25 guys on the last year of their contracts; I’ll win a pennant every year.

        • Bad trades by the other side Lucroy, whoever they traded for Shaw, getting Chase Anderson. Same way the Cubs got turned around a team going for it gives up useable prospect talent. It can work or go against it worked for the Brewers. They also got lucky with Thames. It’s basically the only you can have a low payroll and be any good.

    • Good question.

  • Thanks for crunching the numbers. Do you know the major sources of their revenue used to pay the payroll?

  • Nutting owns 7 springs resort in champion PA. 7 Springs was awarded a resort casino license but they declined it because they would have had to divest themselves from the pirates. That casino which went to Nemacolin woodlands made just under 40 million last year at a resort one tenth the size of 7 springs. So Bob turned down a casino with 75 million potential to just scrape by with the pirates. Nooo he’s not holding back anything! What a guy

    • I’m not going to argue the numbers, because that is pointless speculation, but you do realize that if Bob Nutting divests himself from the Pittsburgh Pirates, they would likely be the Las Vegas Pirates.

      • Flat out wrong. Ron Burkle publicly disclosed that he has approached Bob Nutting about acquiring the Pirates and was rebuffed. Compare the way he operates the Penguins, and the results, with the Nutting led Pirates.

        • The laughable idea that the Pittsburgh Pirates would’ve been allowed to leave Pittsburgh is exactly how billionaires sucker middle class tax payers into buying them hundred-million dollar stadiums.

          • Exactly….and what makes the current situation more irritating is that the prior owner and then mayor Sophie Masloff led the effort to build our gem of a baseball park. Nutting reaps the benefit and won’t sell to a guy who has what it takes to make the investment the bold moves to create a championship team.

        • Then Ron Buckle is not a smart businessman. I honestly have no idea, nor do I care who he is, so don’t waste your time. However, since Nutting doesn’t own the Pirates by himself, he would only be able to sell his share in the team. Anyone purchasing his share of the team would still have minority owners to answer to, and share profits with. In closing, saying that any person that purchased the Pirates could turn them into a perennial championship contender because they have done it elsewhere, is just crazy talk.

    • Casinos are a tax on the dumb. They bleed money out of people who should be saving or spending their money on more wholesome things. I could never look myself in the mirror if I owned a casino.

      Maybe that has something to do with the casino decision.

    • Isn’t the value of the Pirates growing at faster than 40m annually?

  • wasnt the national tv deal money supposed to start increasing exponentially-ish by now?

  • at this point, we just have to hope that the Marte Kang Hughes money lets them just tread water in payroll when you factor in decrease in attendance. anything else is gravy, sadly.

  • It is what it is. They will or will not spend more next year. Hopefully they will put a winning team on the field regardless of what the payroll turns out to be.

  • Spotrac has draft bonus in their total and it’s about 110 however it doesn’t seem complete on the draft side noticeably missing Mason Martin

  • Nice to see you back to baseball. Politics not your cup of tea…

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