The Pittsburgh Pirates are set to have nearly $30 million come off the payroll this offseason when five players hit free agency, but don’t look for the team to bring in any big-name free agents.
Perhaps the biggest free agent on the Pirates’ radar already plays for the team.
Catcher Russell Martin has been a gigantic piece of a puzzle that helped the Pirates escape last year from two decades of futility. He’s having an even better season this year and will likely command a multiyear deal that will take the 31-year-old Martin into retirement.
But that won’t be the only hole to fill this winter.
Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, Clint Barmes and the already departed Wandy Rodriguez will all have their contracts come off the $71.9 million payroll, and all will be free agents.
As mentioned in a previous Bleacher Report article, Liriano and Volquez aren’t likely to return as other teams will offer more in free agency. The Pirates aren’t known for outbidding teams with much higher payrolls, and both of those players are likely to take the best offer dangled before them.
Vance Worley, who has a 3.14 ERA in 80 innings, has surpassed expectations this season and could very well replace one of the two starters in the rotation.
That leaves at least one starting spot in the rotation to fill as well as a backup infield position, given that the Pirates might not re-sign aging shortstop Clint Barmes.
One of those rotation spots could be filled with players currently in the system, including Nick Kingham or Jameson Taillon, who is working his way back from Tommy John surgery.
However, the Pirates won’t be able to use most of the $30 million coming off the payroll to sign free agents. That’s because players like Neil Walker, Josh Harrison, Mark Melancon and Tony Watson, among others, are all likely to get raises in arbitration, and some of those raises could be significant.
That also includes Pedro Alvarez, who is under team control until after next season but will also likely head to arbitration over the winter.
That’s not to mention other players with contracts, like Andrew McCutchen, Charlie Morton, Starling Marte and Jose Tabata, who are due for raises. Those players combined will take another $8.25 million out of next season’s payroll.
Arbitration hearings and findings are so complicated that there’s no way to predict how much each player will command. It involves in-depth contractual arguments between clubs, agents and arbitrators as well as other factors like service time.
However, the folks over at From Forbes to Federal have taken their best shot at estimating how much money will come off the payroll after arbitration is finished.
There are 12 players who are arbitration-eligible, and the writers estimate that could correlate to about $12 million in raises added on the books after the process is over.
When it’s all said and done, the front office should have about $9 million remaining after contract and arbitration raises are factored into the equation. That $9 million is assuming the Pirates’ payroll stays at its current rate, which it certainly might not do.
That doesn’t leave a tremendous amount of wiggle room for signing free agents, although that $9 million could go a long way in bringing Russell Martin back to the Steel City.
As mentioned in a previous Bleacher Report article, the Pirates at a minimum can expect to pay Martin $10 million a year for a multiyear deal. He is hands down the best free-agent catcher on the market, so even that amount might not be enough to bring him back.
Unfortunately, the front office has already given an indication that the market rate for Martin will be too high.
David Manel of Bucs Dugout quoted general manager Neal Huntington as saying in a recent press conference that the team might have to “become creative” if “the market goes where we think the market is going to go” on Martin.
Huntington also told local radio station 93.7 The Fan (via CBS Pittsburgh) several days ago that the team will make every effort it can to re-sign Martin, but he stopped short of making any promises.
“We’re going to do everything that we feel we can do," Huntington said. "It may meet Russ’ needs, it may not. It may not meet our fans determined needs, it may not meet our media’s determined needs."
Don’t look for the Pirates to spend big bucks this winter on any big-name free agents. The front office will likely take its $9 million and spend it elsewhere, like signing a backup infielder (or re-signing Barmes) or bolstering a shaky bullpen.
It’s a shame they won’t use that money to bring back one of the best catchers in baseball.