$70 Million Payroll: Fact or Fiction?

During the “Ask Management Q&A” at Friday night PirateFest, team president Frank Coonelly answered a question regarded the Bucs’ payroll for the 2013 season. In the process, he mentioned that the club could approach a payroll of about $70 million, which would be the largest in franchise history. According to USA Today’s Salary Database, the Pirates had a total payroll of $63,431,999 last season.

Since Neal Huntington & Co.’s first full season in 2008, the Pirates payrolls have looked like this:

Year Payroll Highest Paid Player
2008 $48,689,783 Matt Morris
2009 $48,693,000 Jack Wilson
2010 $34,943,000 Paul Maholm
2011 $45,047,000 Paul Maholm, Chris Snyder
2012 $63,431,999 A.J. Burnett

(Figures from the USA Today Salary Database.)

They have increased the amount of money dished out by nearly $30 million in the past two years alone. Another payroll increase would be a big step for the franchise, but keep in mind that spending more money does not always mean winning (see: Miami Marlins, 2012).

However, the large market teams in baseball, such as the Dodgers, continue to embrace the idea that you can simply buy championships. The Dodgers have been the big spenders of this offseason; their Opening Day payroll is estimated to end up around $225 million. The salaries of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, and Zack Greinke will turn out to be a total of $80 million, which is expected to be significantly higher than the entire Pirates payroll.

The Buccos find themselves in a predicament here. It’s difficult to fill out a roster each season while a) remaining competitive with the big market teams and b) staying inside the budget. The free agent market is insane this offseason. Although they scooped up Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano, neither player came on the cheap. Trades put the team in a tough spot as well, as you have to give to receive. You either need to deal prospects with future potential or current players with some value in order to receive anything decent in return. All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan, projected to make about $7 million in 2013, was just dealt to Boston for Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, and two prospects. Since free agency and trading include high risk for a team like the Pirates, more pressure is placed on scouting and drafting. However, MLB now limits draft spending, so the Bucs are in trouble in that department, too.

Going back to what Coonelly said at PirateFest, is a $70 million payroll out of the question? Tim Williams at Pirates Prospects currently estimates it to be around $66 million. We’ll agree with Tim and say that Coonelly’s prediction will fall short. The additions of Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano, and the re-signing of Jason Grilli come at high prices; all three also represent some risk. Even though the Pirates owe large amounts of money to these three players in 2013, their payroll shouldn’t skyrocket too much – mainly due to the Joel Hanrahan salary dump. With these expensive additions, the Bucs had to deal Hanrahan for a few guys who will make league-minimum salary. Sands and Melancon could still be very valuable players, but they just come at a much cheaper price; that’s how the Pirates have to form their club. Garrett Jones, another Pirate that is due a big raise in arbitration, could be traded soon as well, even if it doesn’t make sense. At the end of the day, the Bucs can’t keep up with the Dodgers and Yankees of the league in terms of high-paying star power, but they may still build a formidable ballclub.

We saw last season that the Pirates can hang with the best teams out there, despite having one of the lowest payrolls. While a payroll increase would most likely be a nice boost, there is no guarantee of a winning product. Still, they will probably have to keep pumping more and more money into the franchise as teams around the league continue to pay ridiculous numbers to their players.

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