Pittsburgh Pirates Headed Toward the Bottom...In Payroll

Tom AuSenior Analyst IIJuly 27, 2009

PHOENIX - JULY 25:  Manager John Russell of the Pittsburgh Pirates watches from the dugout during the major league baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on July 25, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Pittsburgh Pirates started 2009 with a payroll of something like $49 million, the third lowest in the majors after the Florida Marlins and the San Diego Padres.

Based on recent and projected payroll cuts (trades and non-renewed contracts), the Pirates figure to enter 2010 with a payroll of about $30 million, dead last, even behind the other two.

About the irreducible minimum payroll for a 25-member team is something like $10 million. That would consist of a team of rookies or other "replacement players" being paid Major League's "minimum wage" of $400,000 a year.

A "replacement player" is a random player called from the minor leagues, or perhaps hired on short notice from veterans "designated for assignment" by others, to fill an opening due to trade, or more likely, injury. Brian Bixler is a case in point.

Statistically, a team of "replacement players" can expect to win about 40 games during the course of a season. (The closest thing to this was the 1962 New York Mets with all of 42 wins.)

Not all rookies are "replacement players."  Andrew Morton clearly is not. Garrett Jones was initially thought to be, and then proved otherwise.

It's a bit early to be projecting, because of small sample size, but if you extrapolate these players' starts over a whole season, they'd be worth about five games each over a replacement player. That means that a team with these two, plus 23 replacement-level rookies, might win 50 games in a season, for the same $10 million.

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By definition, a league average team (of all league average players), should win 81 games in a season. A league average payroll is something like $80 million, meaning that it costs about $70 million to win those extra 41 games, or about $1.6 million a game.

Divide that number into the Pirates' payroll of less than $40 million above the irreducible $10 million, and the Pirates should win about 25 games more than 40, or a total of 65.

They've actually done a bit better than that in recent years, meaning that they are a good team "for the money."

In this context, even trading Nate McLouth looks iike a "salary dump." He is worth three or four games over a replacement player, at a cost of $2.5 million. That's not a lot, say $700,000-$800,000 per game.

But why use him when McCutcheon and/or Jones can both get you five extra games for $400,000 or $80,000 apiece? And in McLouth's case, the person he was traded for, Charlie Morton, appears to offer the same three or four wins over replacement (the top of his potential) for $400,000.

This means that we got Jeff Locke and Gorkys Hernandez "for free."

Going into 2010, the Pirates figure to have the team with the most rookies ("minimum wage" first- to third-year players): These could include Jones at first, Andy La Roche at third, Lastings Milledge, Andy McCutheon, and Brandon Moss in the outfield.

You can probably count on Argenis Diaz at shortstop, received for Adam LaRoche in the recent trade with the Boston Red Sox. This also includes starters Morton, Ross Ohlendorf, and Jeff Karstens.

Only Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, and Ramon Vazquez of the current rotation will be making more than minimum wage, and they will be arbitration players.

So, too, will actual and potential relievers, Matt Capps, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, John Grabow, and Tyler Yates. The one starting position player in his arbitration years is catcher Ryan Doumit.

With Jason Bay and Adam LaRoche gone, there are only two Pirates that are post-arbitration: Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson. Management has basically indicated its intention to not to pick up the earlier club options for 2010.

Instead they made insulting counter offers that, if accepted, would give these two players arbitration-level, not veteran, salaries based on what they would be worth elsewhere.

Most other teams have a couple of well-paid veteran players on staff, partly as mentors for their younger players, and partly because there might not be enough available rookies to competently staff all the positions. In a sense, veteran players represent a form of insurance.

You might want to keep Wilson around, just in case Diaz isn't up to snuff. And few veterans, never mind rookies, are all-star caliber like Sanchez. Look at the example of other well-run, low-budget teams.

The American League champion Tampa Bay Rays have 13 people making $1 million or more, for a total just above $60 million. For the 2010 Pirates, there might be only eight to 10 "millionaires" on a budget of half that.

Veteran Rays Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Pat Burrell, and Scott Kazmir all make $6 million or more. And lack of experience might have been why the theoretically stronger Rays failed to win the World Series last year. 

The $60-odd million Oakland A's had veteran Matt Holliday, until recently, and have been "carrying" their former star, Eric Chavez, for an annualized total of nearly $25 million.

Even the lower-budget San Diego Padres have two core players, Jake Peavy and former Pirate Brian Giles, that are making a total of about $20 million (divided almost evenly).

Yes, thrift is a virtue. But the Pirates' level of thrift might be "too much of a good thing."

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