If 2020 is Lost, What Could 2021 Payroll Look Like?

Recently, Craig Edwards at FanGraphs broke down what team payrolls could project at for 2021 if a shortened 2020 season were to take place. This is the kind of content I crave, so I read it immediately; however, it also got my wheels turning on a project I had already started.

At the moment, there are very few calculations to be made, and the ones that can I’ve done already, so I decided to do a detailed 2021 payroll projection for the Pittsburgh Pirates myself. While conjecture is far more optimistic at the moment, I decided to project the estimate as if there was no 2020 season, mostly because it leaves room for a lot less speculation, instead allowing for more concrete numbers. This will really serve as more of an exercise to see what future commitments look like, especially in light of the prior agreement regarding salaries and service in the event of a lost season.

To start, I used the current 40-man roster—plus Jameson Taillon—and the current 28 players that effectively make up the team’s active list. If the season is lost, I had to determine who would and who wouldn’t still be around in 2021. Lost to free agency are Keone Kela and Jarrod Dyson, as Kela has 5.000 years of service and would reach free agency once he gained his final team-controlled year by default. As I wrote already, I find it more likely than not that Chris Archer’s option for 2021 isn’t picked up, as the buyout is lower and the guarantee is larger. This decision certainly isn’t out of the question with the team looking to make up for an entire season of lost revenue. Archer would still be on the ledger, however, as the CBA stipulates that if a “Player ultimately receives an Option Buyout that relates to an Option Year other than the earliest Option Year, that Option Buyout shall be included in Salary in the Contract Year covered by the option that was not exercised.”

Finally, options need considered. With the way I constructed the bullpen, there are ten names for eight spots. Dovydas Neverauskas and Clay Holmes would still be vying for jobs, just the same as they were this season; I chose to jettison Neverauskas, but the two are effectively the same salary wise. Finally, as I wondered aloud before, there is the issue of players who were already optioned before rosters froze and are currently in limbo. While there has been no official announcement, I did some sleuthing and was informed that players already optioned would in fact use an option for 2020 in the event of a lost season. That means that Yacksel Ríos would be out of options in 2021, making him a roster projection casualty in my book, leaving 36 players remaining.

Next, we need to consider who may need to be added to the roster. While we have no idea how the Rule 5 Draft would work and whether the same players who were projected to be eligible still would or not. I worked off the assumption that everything happens as expected come December. I didn’t consider any players that were eligible in the past, as it’s more likely that a player unselected in the past would remain as such without any additional games or development; therefore, I only looked at names newly eligible to be selected. While some intriguing lower-level prospects like Santiago Florez, Robbie Glendinning, Max Kranick, and Braeden Ogle stand out, I focused on players closer to the big leagues due to lost development. In total, I only found two names worth protecting—Jared Oliva and Blake Weiman—and we are set with a projected roster of 38 for 2021.

As for salaries, we’ll move through in tiers. Guarantees aren’t difficult, as Gregory Polanco is the only Pirate currently on a long-term, guaranteed deal in this scenario. Next is arbitration, which is a little trickier. Currently, the team has as many as twenty projected arbitration eligible players for 2021. I say ‘as many as’ because there’s room for debate if you read the reporting on who may or may not be eligible for team control come 2021. If you are interested in deep minutiae, read on. If not, skip the next paragraph.

The AP reported that “If no games are played, players non-tendered after the 2019 season who did not sign contracts with provisions for 2021 would become free agents again on a date to be agreed to by MLB and the union.” I see no other way to read this than Guillermo Heredia, JT Riddle, and Luke Maile would go from being under team control for additional arbitration years to free agents, as they fit the above parameters; however, in my aforementioned sleuthing, I was informed that this was indeed not the case and they would stay under team control for 2021. I have no reason to believe otherwise—aside from the clearly written language of the agreement—so for now, I included these three in the projection at the rates they were estimated for by MLB Trade Rumors before being non-tendered after 2019.

If no games are played this season, it was determined that players who were already arbitration eligible for 2020 and had agreed to deals would simply have those agreements roll over to 2021. This made seven of the team’s arbitration cases simple—I also rolled over Erik González’s deal, despite the fact he agreed to a guaranteed deal outside of arbitration—but it still leaves nine first time eligible players for 2021.

In the case of those who had yet to reach arbitration, the deal stipulates that players be compensated based on their 2019 stats. This is not a projection that I like to do, because it involves a lot of speculation. I had the time though, so I went through all the players who were eligible for arbitration after 2019 and compared them to the stats and projected service for the group of nine Pirates—Jacob Stallings, Colin Moran, José Osuna, Steven Brault, Richard Rodríguez, Kyle Crick, Chris Stratton, Edgar Santana, and Nick Burdi—to come up with an estimate. In total, the group accounts for $9,195,000, which obviously isn’t a ton, relative to the number of players we’re talking about. Given the makeup—five mid-tier relievers, a swing-man, utility player, and two mid-level starting position players—this seems like a more than reasonable estimate, plus or minus a million dollars or so. There’s also the possibility that non-tenders increase throughout the league as teams look to cut costs, but we’re strictly looking at players under team control for this exercise.

Finally, minimum salary estimates need calculated. For this, I simply took the three tiers—major league minimum, first professional contract, and subsequent professional contracts—and increased them based on the cost of living adjustments between 2019 and 2020. I used those strict raises for players projected to start on the 40-man but not in the majors, but for all pre-arbitration players on the active roster I added three percent raises on top of the three percent raises I already projected for 2020. It’s not perfect, but it more closely represents what the minimum salaries would be in actuality versus using the flat minimum or a mass total for the entire group, as some sources do.

After all that jazz, I ended up with an estimate of $46,541,400—see the link for all the details. That would obviously rankle a large portion of the fan base, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. It’s entirely possible that payrolls league wide become a casualty of all the lost revenue from this season, not just for the Pirates. Also, does the plan from 2020—evaluate and get a feel for what’s in house—simply roll over to 2021 and basically keep the roster as is for yet another season? It’s possible, but there’s too much up in the air at the moment to say for sure.