If the Pirates are unwilling or unable to support a $90 million payroll, then somebody tell me because this where I get off

Let’s start with this: I don’t like making strong pronouncements after trades. I have, particularly early on in the Neal Huntington era, misread trades pretty badly in the moment. I didn’t take much time to think about the JA Happ trade last year, and I looked pretty dumb in hindsight. This happens not just because I’m a Pirate fan, but because front offices have visions that they work towards that sometimes move in unexpected ways, or take steps backwards before taking steps forwards, or whatever. The Neal Huntington Pirates have, usually for better but for occasionally worse, always been built with a vision. Trades don’t happen in a vacuum, but we as fans experience them more or less like they do. That often makes it hard for us to evaluate them, especially in their immediate aftermath.

I say all this because it’s certainly true that a team’s evaluations of prospects shifts internally almost always before it shifts anywhere else. The Giants knew exactly what they were doing when they traded Tim Alderson for Freddy Sanchez, even if almost no one else that was watching that trade did. Both Harold Ramirez and Reese McGuire are hitting inflection points as prospects, where things that were forgivable early in their careers (Ramirez’s lack of power, McGuire’s generally inability to hit) quickly become red flags. If Ramirez doesn’t find some power in his swing, his prospect status will drop quickly. If McGuire can’t hit, all his ability with the glove makes him is a more highly touted version of Jacob Stallings. If these players are going in these directions, the Pirates would probably be the first to know.

Similarly, the Pirates tend to know what they want in pitchers. Their record isn’t perfect, but there are more JA Happs on their ledger than Jon Nieses. Drew Hutchison doesn’t necessarily look impressive — and maybe he’s not impressive — but I’m almost always willing to give the Pirates the benefit of the doubt when it comes to acquiring pitchers  in the short-term. That’s not to say I’m convinced that Hutchison is any sort of answer, just that I think it’s possible that some time with the Pirates might make him better than he appears to be right now. I’m not really sure that now is the time to find that out, and I don’t know that it’s worth it to find out at the expense of the other, younger pitchers that the Pirates have in AAA already, but I’m not willing to dismiss him out of hand.

All of this being said and all of this benefit of the doubt being given, it’s really hard to view sending Harold Ramirez and Reese McGuire to Toronto along with Francisco Liriano for only Drew Hutchison as anything other than using prospects to pay for a salary dump. As it stands, Hutchison was the guy the Blue Jays needed to upgrade for last year’s playoff run and he couldn’t ever really crack the rotation again this year. His Triple-A numbers are OK, particularly his strikeout rate, but there’s not much else in there that’s compelling. He’s young, but not that young. If the Pirates wanted Drew Hutchison, it’s hard to think that they would’ve had to give up both McGuire and Ramirez to get him, had Liriano not been involved.

And so that brings us to the uncomfortable truth here; the Pirates traded Mark Melancon on Saturday, and said they would use the cleared salary to get rotation help. They traded for Ivan Nova, who makes less than half of what Melancon does (regardless of whether or not he fits your definition of ‘help’). They then traded Jon Niese for Antonio Bastardo (Niese makes more than Bastardo this year, but Bastardo is slightly more expensive in total if you assume the Pirates were going to buy Niese out after this year). Finally, they dumped Liriano’s $13.7 million for Hutchison’s arbitration salary.

All told, the Pirates’ payroll commitments for next year are ~$32 million (UPDATE: I forgot about Bastardo, so that goes to $38 million, adjust upwards below accordingly) without Liriano and before arbitration and minimum salaries. UPDATE #2: As was pointed out to me on Twitter, it looks like the numbers I used above were added up wrong. Minus Liriano and plus Bastardo, the Pirates’ salary commitments next year are in the ~$53 million range. I’ve updated this post in a few obvious places below to reflect that. Big changes are in italics.

Because of their long-term contracts, their arbitration obligations are not onerous. Tony Watson will get a decent raise on his $3.45 million, Jordy Mercer will get a decent raise on $2.075 million, and I assume that Gerrit Cole will get decent money in his first arbitration year. Beyond that, we’re looking at Hutchison, Jared Hughes, Juan Nicasio, and maybe (but probably not) Jeff Locke. This is a pure guess, but I think that group in total would come in around $25-35 million, so the payroll is likely under  $70 million before minimum deals. Eleven minimum deals would take the payroll to the $70-75 million range. so the payroll is likely around $75-85 million before minimum deals, and in the $80-$90 million range with minimum deals figured in.

Now, the Pirates’ payroll will obviously be higher than $75 million next year, but how much higher? So where does that put the team’s payroll? They weren’t willing to go higher than ~$95 million this year, when all indications lead us to believe that they had another $10-15 million in the budget and when spending that money could’ve made a big difference for this year’s team. They underspent in the winter of 2014-2015, too, but that unspent money was put towards Ramirez and Happ at the trade deadline. This year, instead of adding that unspent money, they shed in the neighborhood of $5 million. 

So where does the unspent money go? If you assume next year’s Pirates have the same theoretical ~$1o5 million to spend that this year’s team had (and that was probably a low estimate, and the idea at this point is that payroll should be going up every year), and you add that extra $5 million in, the Pirates are currently somewhere in the ballpark of $20-30 million under budget for next season. Maybe the Pirates will spent that much money this winter, but it’s hard to imagine that they’re going to do that. 

The Pirates are not going to be a *bad* team anytime in the near future. Their core of Polanco, Marte, Cole, the rising pitchers, Josh Bell’s impending arrival (whenever the hell it is) and the solid supporting cast of Mercer/Cervelli types ensures that. But the Pirates have to be willing to make moves to fill their team out, whether that’s via free agency or trades. They have to be willing to take risks on players, and to spend a little bit of money here or there. It’s really hard for me to believe that they’re going to spend an inordinate amount of money next winter, and it’s really hard to swallow them moving two prospects in a salary dump when they won’t move prospects to acquire players that would definitely improve their team.

Which is to say this: wiping the Liriano salary off the books is only a good thing if the Pirates are willing to behave in a way that they haven’t behaved to this point in the Neal Huntington era. Maybe they will do that this winter, but probably they won’t. If the reaction to every small mistake and every slightly bad contract is to dump prospects to get rid of it, it’s hard to imagine how the Pirates are going to be able to make the moves necessary to get them over the top in a highly competitive NL Central. I hope I’m wrong, but this trade makes me feel as pessimistic about the direction of this team as anything that’s happened since their fortunes started to change after they bottomed out in 2010.

Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

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.