This article also appears at Slew Footers.
The Pittsburgh Pirates opened the 2011 season with baseball's fourth-stingiest Opening Day payroll at $45.63 million.
It must have been one hell of a week in the front offices of PNC Park, then, that drew the ire of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig for what he deemed overspending by the Pirates and Washington Nationals, two of baseball's much-maligned but promising young teams.
If any promise is to exist in these and similar clubs, it will be thanks to work done in the draft. Two blue-chip prospects and a total $17 million later, the Pirates have done just that—whether or not the commissioner who oversees payrolls of more than $195 million approves.
As Sports Illustrated writer Jon Heyman notes, spending high on draft picks may be the only way for small-market teams like the Pirates and Nationals to get ahead. An overrated draft pick can mean seven or eight million dollars burned, but an overrated free agent acquisition can waste upwards of $125 million.
Last week, the Pirates set a signing deadline record by handing out $17 million in bonuses to draft picks, including a combined $13 million to number one overall selection Gerrit Cole ($8 million) and second-round prize Josh Bell ($5 million).
Cole set a signing bonus record with his deal, while Bell's $5 million was the highest bonus ever awarded a player not taken in the first round (Bell was surefire first-round material who lowered his own stock by notifying teams he intended to play college ball).
Hot on the heels of signing their big draft picks, the Pirates awarded left fielder Jose Tabata a six-year contract extension worth $14.75 million in guaranteed money, with club options in the three following years worth a potential total of $22.5 million. The deal buys Tabata out of his arbitration-eligible seasons and at max value could be worth $37.25 million over nine years.
"The Pittsburgh Pirates gave me an opportunity to play in the big leagues," Tabata said. "I don't want to talk about the money but I can say it's good because I can take care of my family."
"I like Pittsburgh. I like the city. I like the people. I want to stay here for a long time."
With Tabata's extension, count $31.75 million spent on one major league starter and one draft class, or almost 70 percent of this year's Opening Day payroll matched in just a few days.
This kind of spending contrasts well with the long-standing stigma about the team's spending habits, which were established far before the organization's current front office trio of owner Bob Nutting, President Frank Coonelly and General Manager Neal Huntington were part of the picture.
In fact, the events of the last week are some of the first real indications that the current management group is committed to reversing the trends of the past—not only in the draft, but in locking up some of the perceived "core" players.
While the Pirates are the only team in baseball to have landed in the lowest-five of opening day payrolls in each of the last eight seasons (Bob Nutting's tenure as principal owner), the team has spent more than any team in baseball in the last five entry drafts.
The committed money spent has locked up such names as Pedro Alvarez, Tony Sanchez, Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie, Gerrit Cole and Josh Bell, and its worth noting that many of the signees have been clients of super agent Scott Boras, who has a checkered past with Pirates' management but who worked to get his clients signed to the club nonetheless.
Tabata's extension is the first sign that the team is committed to re-signing established major league talents, and not just handing relative mountains of cash to young men who are earning their first money as ball players.
Added to the excitement of the Tabata signing are reports that second baseman Neil Walker may not be far behind on an extension of his own.
A new deal for Walker isn't far removed from the realm of the inevitable. Walker is a Pittsburgh native and career-long product of the Pirates organization. He was the team's first pick (11th overall) in the 2004 draft, and is a fan-favorite in the city. As long as the team offers him a fair deal, locking up Walker through his arbitration-eligible seasons and beyond should be no problem.
If the Walker extension occurs this season, his signing, along with the Tabata extension and draft expenditures will see the Pirates commit more money on two major leaguers and a draft class than they spent on any Opening Day roster recent memory.
These are all great signs coming from the Pirates. The biggest confirmation of the team's renaissance will be the McCutchen extension—when, and if, the team commits to it.
James can be reached for sports talk in 140-character form @slewfooters.
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