From here to there (or, is “Why not the Pirates?” good enough?) (or, The One About the Payroll)

Chances are pretty good that you’ve seen someone pick the Pirates to win the World Series this year. Buster Olney did it. Grant Brisbee did it. I’m sure they’re not alone, either, though I can’t think of anyone else right off the top of my head. Here’s the thing about this prediction: neither one of those guys thinks that the Pirates are the best team in baseball this year. In fact, even though quite a few people are picking the Pirates to win the World Series, I don’t really know if anyone thinks that they’re better than the Nationals or the Dodgers right now. Brisbee is up front about his prediction: a bunch of teams will make the playoffs and one of them will win it and more often than not the team that wins is not the best team on paper, so why not pick the Pirates? They’re pretty likely to be one of those teams there in the mix at the end of the year, and at that point their chances will be similar to pretty much everyone else’s.

If you’re a regular reader of this site, then you probably know that this is veering towards a topic that I struggle back and forth on quite a bit. Is it a better strategy to try and make the playoffs as often as possible on the thought that every division title carries a 12.5% chance to win the World Series and every wild card spot carries about a 6% chance (based on every team having even odds to win when the playoffs start, which is not quite true although it’s probably close enough)? Or would the Pirates be better off absolutely maxing out on their 2015 or 2016 team, trying to tilt the odds in those particular playoff runs to their favor, then worrying about what happens in 2018 and beyond when we get there?

This question creates a juggling act. The Pirates’ offense is very likely close to running at its peak capacity with this group of players. Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker are at or close to the primes of their careers, Starling Marte is probably approaching his, and there’s a decent chance Pedro Alvarez rights himself as he approaches free agency. Gregory Polanco probably isn’t close to approaching peak offensive years yet, whatever those will look like, but he doesn’t have to be in his prime to be the player that can push this whole group over the top. The Pirates made the playoffs last year by destroying baseballs in August and September, and if they make the playoffs or do more than that this year, it will likely be because of that offense. The pitching is not there quite yet: Gerrit Cole is still more unfulfilled promise than anything, and the rest of the rotation is still made up of castoffs and reclamation projects in various stages of completeness that might be good enough, but that could also be a disaster*. It’s not hard to imagine the 2018 Pirate rotation, with Cole in his prime backed by Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon, and Nick Kingham dominating the National League. It’s tougher to figure how that team will score runs.

This inevitably brings us to the payroll question. Forbes released their franchise values last week and the Pirates came in at #17, worth about $900 million dollars. They put their operating income at $43.6 million, fifth in baseball. The Pirates’ Opening Day payroll of ~$88 million is 25th in baseball, and second lowest in the National League. My guess at the beginning of the off-season was that the Pirates could probably comfortably support at $100 million payroll in 2015, and they clearly came up short of that. I am less certain of how to find a good answer to the question “Are the Pirates maximizing their resources in the best way to help them win?”

Let’s start here: if the Pirates spent an extra $20 million this winter, it would put them on a level commensurate with their Forbes value ranking**. Let’s say they did that by signing James Shields (Shields signed for four years and $75 million with the Padres, so let’s imagine the Pirates could’ve topped that offer with a four year/$80 million offer), which is what James Santelli suggests in Pittsburgh Magazine could be something that would make a big difference for the Pirates this year and something that I can admit that I was secretly sort of hoping for as Shields dragged out his decision.

There is almost no doubt in my mind that spending $20 million on James Shields would be in the best interest of the 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates. It’d eliminate the Vance Worley/Jeff Locke discussion because neither would have to be in the rotation, it’d take pressure off of Nick Kingham and Jameson Taillon, it’d give the Bucs a ton of depth in the event that Charlie Morton or AJ Burnett are unable to pitch effectively in 2015. Adding one workhorse to the top of the Pirates’ rotation would increase their depth significantly, because without a workhorse in the rotation there’s a certain amount of patchwork that needs to be done to cover the requisite innings. With James Shields, there’s a decent chance the Pirates are considered the NL Central favorites right now.

There is equally no doubt in my mind that paying $20 million for James Shields could be disastrous for the 2018 Pirates. That James Shields could very well be the Pirates’ fifth best starter. He’ll be 36 in 2018 and his strikeout rate has tailed the last two years. I have no idea what sort of pitcher he’ll be in 2018. The Pirates would owe Shields $20 million, Andrew McCutchen $14.75 million in the final year of his deal, Starling Marte $7.5 million, and Jung Ho Kang $3 million. That puts the payroll at ~$45 million with Gerrit Cole in his second arbitration year and Jordy Mercer in his third and who knows what else in the way of payroll commitments from there. That doesn’t even consider where McCutchen and Shields might be at that point in their careers. I don’t know what the Pirates’ payroll will be in 2018 and I won’t pretend to guess, so maybe it’s possible that they’d be able to afford a roster constructed like that. Maybe they won’t, though, and then what? Is the added value in 2015 (which is rightly perceived to be a lot right now, but could be substantially less in hindsight) worth the potential subtracted value in 2018? Since I can’t answer this question, I don’t mind erring on the side of caution, especially since leaving the money unspent in the winter leaves room to address problems during the season at the trade deadline, which the Pirates have been willing to do in the past.

We can take this conversation and circle back on the initial question, which was, What do the Pirates have to do to get themselves from, “Hey, why not these guys?” to, “Picking these guys is so boring I’m going to pick [insert random decent team like the 2015 Pirates], because why not?” The answer to that question in the short term is to spend more money, but the answer to that question over the long-term is to take their payroll high enough that if the Pirates maximize those dollars spent, they’re on the same level as the teams that have no payroll ceiling. That’s more or less what the Cardinals do, and they’re obviously the standard that the Pirates should be setting for themselves. The question from there becomes, “What’s that threshold that the Pirates need to reach?” I think you can make a pretty fair argument that it’s somewhere above $88 million, but I’m also less certain how the Pirates could have gotten above that number without potentially compromising future teams, which is problematic.

The functional answer to the question lies in Gerrit Cole, Nick Kingham, Jameson Taillon, and Tyler Glasnow. In order for the Pirates to get to the next level, they need a pitching staff that matches their offense. In order for that to happen, Cole has to find the next level and Glasnow, Taillon, and Kingham have to fill out the staff with more talent than Charlie Morton, Vance Worley, and Jeff Locke do right now. The window for that to happen is small: after 2016, Neil Walker’s Pirate career will likely be over and it’s impossible to say how long Andrew McCutchen’s Superman impression will last. The Pirates won’t be bad after that point, of course, but by then they’ll have a whole new set of questions to ansewr.

*They’re probably closer to being “good enough” than they are to “disaster,” but let’s not pretend like any of their top nine starters (Cole, Liriano, Burnett, Worley, Morton, Locke, Sadler, Kingham, Taillon) are even remotely sure things in 2015. 

**This is a tangent, but an important one to take, I think: using the number rankings for this list is misleading. The difference between the 17th most valuable franchise (the Pirates) and the least valuable franchise (the Rays) is larger than the gap between the Pirates and the tenth most valuable franchise. The gap between the haves and everyone else is enormous, and so while the Pirates rank as middle-of-the-pack, I’d still argue that they’re in baseball’s bottom tier. I also want to point out that I think the operating income numbers are almost pointless because of the way the bigger market teams (especially the ones with their own TV networks, like the Yankees) are able to obfuscate things. The Pirates’ operating income may indeed be ~$40 million, but I would be shocked if that were truly the fifth highest operating income in Major League Baseball for last season. I don’t think that the difference between the 25th highest payroll and the 17th highest payroll is as hugely significant as it’s occasionally made out to be, because those two still fall into the same relative baseball payroll stratosphere. The $32 million between the Pirates at #25 and the Cardinals at #11 is almost the same as the distance between the Cardinals at #11 and the Angels at #7. I guess what I’m saying is, it’s not great to see a team evaluated as the 17th most valuable to be at #25 in payroll, but it’d be much, much worse to see a team evaluated at #7 to end up at #15. Context is important here, and it’s easy to lose in this discussion.

 Image: Shashi Bellamkonda, Flickr

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.