The Pirates enter this offseason preparing for a 2018 season with many apathetic and cynical eyes on them. Revenues from attendance (and the food/merchandise that goes with it) will be down, due to the continued drop in attendance. In 2016, attendance was 2.25M. This season, it was 1.92M, a precipitous drop of 14.6%. TV ratings on AT&T Sportsnet also cratered this season, a true indicator that people were really fed up with the direction of the team.
However, what is lost in the attendance portion of the revenue should be made up for by a one-time influx of cash from the continued sale of BAMTech shares to Disney. Originally, I speculated that $50M might be going to each MLB team, but I neglected to account for the fact that the NHL is a 10% owner in BAMTech, too (a de-risking move done early on by MLB Advanced Media). So each team could get $45M, which assuming 45% goes to payroll would result in a $20.25M boost.
I’ve already estimated the salaries for the arbitration-eligible players. Let’s see what the Pirates have on hand, how much money may be left, and where they could improve.
The Pirates need to win back their fans. They need to construct a good product that will interest viewers, as well, since their TV deal is up after 2019 and increased ratings will positively affect them during negotiations. They are routinely running revenues in the $250M-$260M range, so I’m projecting a potential 2018 Opening Day payroll of $115M. This would be a 46% payroll-to-revenue ratio based on $250M in revenue or a 44% payroll-to-revenue ratio on $260M of revenue.
EXISTING PAYROLL COMMITMENTS
Right now, the Pirates have $75.4M of committed salary to the following 10 players (and two buyouts):
*Assuming Pirates pick up his 2018 club option and keep him
The Pirates did not pick up Stewart’s club option ($250K buyout) or LeBlanc’s club option ($50K buyout).
ESTIMATED ARBITRATION SALARIES
And from the arbitration estimate article, they have $19.7M potentially for these four players:
If you assign $550,000 per player for eleven minimum-scale players (total $6.05M), that takes you up to $101.15M. That leaves just under $15M of space to work with, assuming the $115M threshold, of course.
Let’s look at each position and the pitching staff to see where the money should be spent, or perhaps re-allocated.
Francisco Cervelli ($10.5M) is the presumptive starter due to his contract. Elias Diaz ($550,000 est.) is in the mix, but I’ve already written about how he is not my preferred option to back up Cervelli going forward. I’ve already identified Chris Iannetta as a good backup to target in free agency, but for now let’s allocate $2M to the backup catcher position.
Allocation — $12.5M
After a 2017 season that will probably result in a 2nd place NL Rookie of the Year finish, Josh Bell ($550,000) is the starter moving forward. I’m still not entirely sold on his overall offensive package, as his wRC+ was just 108 (meaning, 8% better than a league average hitter), but perhaps he can add another gear to his game this year.
There’s not a defined backup first baseman, as the Pirates have multiple players that could fill that role (and others) percolating on the roster. I’ll cover them in the Bench section of this exercise.
Allocation — $0.55M
Josh Harrison ($10.25M) is the starter at 2B for this exercise, even though he could easily slide over to 3B if Jung-ho Kang is not available. In that scenario, the Pirates could look to the free agency or trade market for a 2B and move Harrison to 3B. Harrison had a solid rebound year after two down seasons, as his 104 wRC+ and career-high 16 homers helped fuel a 2.6 WAR 2017 — which was the combined WAR total of both 2015 and 2016. Harrison does not need upgraded.
Allocation — $10.25M
Jordy Mercer ($6.5M est.) also had a career-high of homers with 14, but it still resulted in a very Mercer-esque season of a 88 wRC+, solid defense at short, and 1.4 WAR overall. Mercer is a middle-of-the-road SS and could be upgraded, but there are few options to actually do so. Carlos Correa and Corey Seager aren’t getting moved, so the Pirates are probably going to play out Mercer’s final year of team control and go from there.
I’ve never been a believer in Kevin Newman’s bat (or, frankly, his ability to play short on a full-time basis in the Majors), so it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Pirates float a small bridge contract extension to Mercer this offseason. Something like 3 years/$28.5M could benefit both sides. Mercer’s a placeholder, not a cornerstone, but he’s our placeholder.
Allocation — $6.5M
If you’re going to ask if I think that Jung-ho Kang ($3M) will be with the Pirates in 2018, I’d say your guess is as good as mine. As I’ve frequently said, if you boil it all down, Kang is an immigrant with a criminal history trying to enter the United States in 2018 and take a job from an American. Good luck with all that.
And I’m not going to get up on a high horse and clutch pearls on whether or not Kang should be allowed to play for the Pirates based off his DUI history. What he has done is reprehensible, but you and I know that the second he starts going madang again and it helps the Pirates to win, fans will hold their nose and start cheering for him again. There are plenty of Steelers that get cheers every week after having all sorts of criminal infractions against them.
If Kang is not granted a work visa, I’d move Harrison to 3B and look to upgrade 2B. I don’t think Frazier’s defense will allow him to be a full-time starter at 2B and I’m not sold on Max Moroff as a starter.
Allocation — $3M
I’ve been pretty adamant that the Pirates should pick up the option for Andrew McCutchen ($14.75M) and keep him. Add in Starling Marte ($7.83M) and Gregory Polanco ($4.1M) and your starting outfield is in place. It’s imperative that all three of them pick up their respective games in terms of full-season consistency. Polanco would be an intriguing chip to dangle in the trade market to see if someone would bite on his upside potential and years of team control remaining (thru 2021, with 2022/2023 options).
Allocation — $26.68M
In theory, the starting rotation is set for 2018. It would be comprised of the same five guys that made 145 combined starts for the Pirates in 2017. Gerrit Cole ($7.5M est.), Jameson Taillon ($550,000 est.), and Ivan Nova ($9.17M) would be the front three. Chad Kuhl ($550,000 est.) and Trevor Williams ($550,000 est.) would be the back-end guys. I’ve long said that the Pirates should look to upgrade on one of Kuhl or Williams, though, as I feel both are more long-term bullpen options. Williams showed me a lot this season, but he still lacks an out pitch to ensure long-term success. I think Kuhl could be re-purposed into an elite multi-inning reliever that is quite en vogue these days.
But for now, we’ll go with these guys.
Allocation — $18.32M
Felipe Rivero ($3M est.) is absolutely the closer in 2018, but the rest of the roles are up in the air. Daniel Hudson ($5.5M) is going to attempt to put 2017 in the rear view mirror and justify his contract this season. He was signed to be a setup man (or at worst a strong 7th inning guy), so he’ll probably get the benefit of the doubt and start out as such. George Kontos ($2.7M est.) is in the same 7th/8th inning mix.
I think Dovydas Neverauskus ($550,000 est.) has shown enough to warrant a spot in the bullpen somewhere. Also, A.J. Schugel ($550,000 est.) quietly had a good season (1.97 ERA/4.00 FIP, indicating he had some luck), but he seems eminently upgradeable. Lefty Wade LeBlanc will not be back, but I don’t think his spot will automatically go to Steven Brault.
As for the other two spots, there’s a mix of players like the live-armed lefty Jack Leathersic and Mike Bradley of TPOP’s personal favorite Edgar Santana. There’s also the discussion of what to do with Tyler Glasnow. I’ve been on the record for a while that I’d like to see him converted to a dominant bullpen guy that can just focus on two pitches in short bursts.
Allocation — $12.3M
I’ve already discussed allocating $2M for a backup catcher to pair with Cervelli. The rest of the bench is kind of set right now with the likes of David Freese ($4.25M), Sean Rodriguez ($5.75M), Adam Frazier ($550,000 est.) and Jose Osuna ($550,000 est.). But that doesn’t mean that the Pirates should not look to upgrade here. None of them displayed a sterling bat (Freese 100 wRC+, Frazier 97 wRC+, Osuna 78 wRC+, Rodriguez while with Pirates 43 wRC+) so if they are able to move either Freese or Rodriguez to free up some cash for elsewhere, they should.
Allocation — $13.1M
So What’s Left?
Bench spots (1) — Besides the backup catcher that I think they need, I think the Pirates need to re-work the bench. They don’t really have a player that can play a true shortstop, in the event of a Mercer injury. Rodriguez can fake it for a game or two, but not long-term. With Josh Bell as a switch-hitter and the presence of both Rodriguez and maybe Osuna, David Freese doesn’t really need to be around to back up 1B. There are multiple players (if Kang is here) that can play 3B, too.
I would love to move Freese for a player that could play SS and then upgrade Osuna with Adam Lind. Lind is a lefty that needs to be platooned. He’s mostly a 1B, but he can fake it in RF for the Pirates, if needed. His bat last year with the Nationals (.303/.362/.513, 122 wRC+) could provide a much-needed jolt off the bench in late innings.
Bullpen (2) — Sure, the Pirates could fill it out with internal candidates like Steven Brault and Tyler Glasnow. That could work out for them, of course. But I’d like to see them get in the mix on plenty of above-average 2nd-tier relievers out there like Brendan Morrow, Bryan Shaw, Jake McGee, and Tommy Hunter. Bringing one or two of them in would deepen the bullpen. It would take immediate pressure off of Daniel Hudson to be the setup guy, it would put Kontos in the 7th inning where he fits best, and there wouldn’t be youthful errors to weather.
Rotation (0 or 1, very binary) — Yes, they technically don’t need a starter, but I’ve laid out the case for getting one and then moving Kuhl or Williams to the bullpen. This would also eliminate 1 of the bullpen spots to be filled, of course. I think Alex Cobb would be a great move, but he would consume most of the $15M that I’m projecting the Pirates have to work with (not factoring in moving salary to re-allocate payroll). If the Pirates do something, they’ll wait until January to sift through what’s left and try to get a bargain.
There’s a lot riding on this offseason. The division is not necessarily locked up by the Cubs, although the Pirates best path to the playoffs is most likely a Wild Card. The Diamondbacks (24 wins) and the Rockies (12 wins) both dramatically improved their win-loss records to make the playoffs in one offseason. They did it with shrewd trades and timely free agent moves, plus relying on their young core to produce.
The Pirates need to augment, not drastically alter, the composition of their existing team. With some better off-field decisions by players and some better offseason decisions by management, the Pirates could be right back in the playoff mix in 2018.