Revisiting Frank Coonelly’s Arbitration Comments

Friday was kind of like Christmas to me. I got to update my payroll spreadsheet with official salary figures for the eight players on the roster that were eligible for salary arbitration.

I enjoy this because it clarifies my projection, and simply because I love any kind of transaction news. However, I couldn’t help but remember Frank Coonelly’s ill-fated comments on the subject of payroll and arbitration at PiratesFest 2019. From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“This year’s 25-man roster will likely have more than half of it be players not yet arbitration-eligible. Therefore, the payroll will reflect that. That same roster will be more expensive the following year as the following players become arbitration-eligible. There will be room for the payroll to grow.”

Basically, the gist was that payroll was naturally low, as the team had many young players, and it could go up naturally as those players accrued service-time and hit their arbitration years. This of course makes sense in theory, but it didn’t make a lot of sense at the time, and it certainly looks worse now.

As I wrote when the comments were made, payroll could go up in 2020 when the first big wave of arbitration hit, but what Coonelly seemed to be leaving out—intentionally or otherwise—was that the team had other salaries to take into account.

Last season, I calculated an Opening Day Payroll of $77,522,000. Currently, I have a projected Opening Day Payroll of $59,626,779 for 2020, or roughly $18 million less. Of course, Coonelly couldn’t have guessed one of the team’s highest paid players would be going to jail for statutory sexual assault, so add that $6 million in salary back in and the total is still $12 million short.

Last season, the nine arbitration eligible players the Pirates settled with—including Erik Gonzalez, who agreed to a contract in December—accounted for $7,630,000 in salary. The group just re-upped for $21,865,000, or an increase of $14,235,000. So, if the arbitration class experienced that much of an increase, how come it’s still so much less? Of course, we already know the answer—departing salaries.

At the start of 2019, the Pirates had seven players bound for free agency after the season who accounted for $30,750,000 in salary. If you subtract that from the starting $77,522,000, add in the more recent arbitration increase, as well as the $6,750,000 in raises of guaranteed salaries from 2019 to 2020, you’re at $67,757,000, or right around the $65,626,779 we started with as a comparison.

What’s this all mean? Was Coonelly being intentionally obtuse or deceitful? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, yes, arbitration can naturally lead to higher payrolls, but only if the rest of the roster meets previous spending levels.

A longtime Pirates Prospects reader, Ethan has been covering payroll, transactions, and rules in-depth since 2018 and dabbling in these topics for as long as he can remember. He started writing about the Pirates at The Point of Pittsburgh before moving over to Pirates Prospects at the start of the 2019 season.

Always a lover of numbers and finding an answer, Ethan much prefers diving into these topics over what’s actually happening on the field. These under and often incorrectly covered topics are truly his passion, and he does his best to educate fans on subjects they may not always understand, but are important nonetheless.

When he’s not updating his beloved spreadsheets, Ethan works full-time as an accountant, while being a dad to two young daughters and watching too many movies and TV shows at night.

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