Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pittsburgh Pirates Payroll Under Scrutiny by MLBPA?

In an article written on August 20, Dejan Kovacevic quoted Frank Coonelly thusly:

" '[In 2010], we have the capacity to add to payroll in a meaningful way....
We'll be evaluating the trade market and free agency and, if we
see a player or players we like, we'll be aggressive in pursuing that player' ".

Interpreting Coonelly's words in the aftermath of recent Pittsburgh Pirates signings raises some interesting questions. Popular opinion on starting pitcher Kevin Correia, right fielder Matt Diaz and first baseman Lyle Overbay has varied from lukewarm to good old-fashioned Pittsburgh Negative, but excitement and enthusiasm is nowhere to be found. And for good reason; no one can argue that these are the kinds of players to get excited about. While these three players can be serviceable for this ball club, none of them are the kinds of guys that any ball club would need to 'aggressively pursue'. And yet they do not come at a bargain; these three signings will cost the Pirates around 18 million dollars over the next two years.

This has caused many fans and sportswriters to ask the question, 'Why?' Are these players indeed worth this kind of money? And with Andrew McCutchen possibly qualifying for Super Two status and resultant arbitration eligibility at the end of the 2011 season, this skepticism has indeed begun to take on a sense of urgency. Wouldn't it be better to let prospects vie for the starting positions while setting aside a good chunk of that 18 million for the extension that McCutchen needs to be offered?

A recent article by The Smizik about the Overbay acquisition offers an interesting perspective.

"The Florida Marlins were censured in the past for not putting enough money into payroll and it was believed at the time that both MLB and the players union also closely looked at the Pirates' payroll. It's possible that the Pirates [signed Overbay] to avoid being censured or penalized by the union and/or MLB".

It is entirely possible that Bill Smizik made this up, of course. I have found no other source that mentions anything about either MLB or the players union scrutinizing the Pittsburgh Pirates' payroll for breach of the revenue sharing agreement, and history has taught us that Bill Smizik has no qualms with distorting facts to fit his views. There is always the chance that he's actually right, however. These guys are purported to have inside sources, after all.

According to an article published today by, the MLB Players' Union's report on the average MLB player's salary in 2010 shows the Pirates as being dead last.
"...The Pittsburgh Pirates ranked #30 for the second year in a row, and no higher than 29th in the last 3 years with an average salary of $1,140,598 or 38 percent below the league average."

One might assume that such a finding would automatically result in scrutiny from the Players' Union, MLB or both. They would be committing quite the about-face if they were to do so, however. As recently as september 29 of 2009, Bud Selig went on record endorsing the Pirates' business practices. From an article written by Dejan Kovacevic for the Post-Gazette:

" 'I understand the frustration of the Pirates' fans...But I have great confidence in Frank [Coonelly], and I know that Bob Nutting is committed to building this franchise. Do I believe they're on the right path? I'm very confident they are' ".

On behalf of the Players' Association, executive director Michael Weiner gave his approval of the Pirates' finances as recently as this past April. From an article written by Rob Biertempfel for

" 'We've been in touch with the commissioner's office and with people in the Pirates' (front office) over the years about how things are going...To date, at least, we have been satisfied that the new administration there understands the conditions of the basic agreement.' "

From this we can conclude that the MLBPA pays attention to the Pirates' business practices as it does with any other major league baseball team. While the Pirates could conceivably be spending money in order to keep on the MLBPA's good side, it would appear that Smizik is incorrect in stating that they were scrutinized in the same way as the Florida Marlins.

So what can we make of these signings? To be fair to the front office, this has been a disappointing Free Agency for mid and small-market teams. The difference between the salary of guys like Cliff Lee and Jayson Werth and our acquisitions is so immense as to dwarf the Pirates' entire payroll. At the best of times, small-market teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates rarely have the opportunity to acquire big major league talent in any position via trade free agency, and this year's crop has only exacerbated that fact. The Pirates tried to go after Jason Bartlett and JJ Hardy, but were ultimately unsuccessful.

It is my belief, however, that all these signings are indicative of a fundamental change in the Front Office's values following last season's 107 losses. All of the major events that have occurred in the Pirates organization this off-season, from firing Russell to hiring Hurdle and the subsequent signing of Diaz, Correia and Overbay, indicates a new focus on the performance of the Pirates team as it exists today. While the Front Office would be foolish to expect the Pirates to be in contention for the Pennant in 2010 (or even to finish over .500), this is the first time that the Front Office has signed free agents to fill positions despite an abundance of prospects in AAA.

Based on previous years, I would have expected the Pirates to give the 2011 starting right field and first base positions to a platoon of Garrett Jones and several prospects, of which Pearce, Bowker, Presley, Jones, and Clement are all possibilities. While it is true that none of these guys are a sure bet in the way that Alvarez, McCutchen or Tabata have been, their performances in 2010 indicate that there is definitely still at least some upside in each of those players (with the exception of Clement, in my opinion).

Instead, we are going to see Matt Diaz and Lyle Overbay getting significant playing time. Overbay had a WAR of 2.4 for 2010 , whereas Diaz's was only 0.8. Even if we go by their 2009 WARs of 3.5 and 2.7, respectively, we are looking at a difference of only 6.2 wins. That's not enough to even finish with less than a hundred losses. If the Pirates start defining success in comparison to their recent seasons, all hope is in danger of being lost.

I will always take a 27-year-old rookie with some upside over his 33 and 34-year-old counterpart. I watched the Pirates lose 107 games in 2010 in the hopes that they'll lose 80 in 2013 (we'll see), and I would do the same in 2011. My hope is that Huntington is planning on trading these guys in July and promoting the two prospects who do the best in AAA; I'd rather see a bunch of young guys struggle than a couple aging veterans attempt to enter the twilight of their careers gracefully. No disrespect to the veterans of this sport, but the more interesting story is the one that has yet to be told.


  1. Your analysis is good. The $18 million spent on the free agents will seemingly only benefit 2011. Why didn't management spend most of the $18 million on prospects who can contribute beyond 2011? The answer is avoiding another 107 loss season..

  2. You and I have our differences about this matter but I must say you make a compelling argument. I'm not all that disappointed with the 33-year old guys only because I'm am over watching guys who have proven nothing have to audition for a big-league job on the fly (ala Clement).
    I guess I could go so far as to say, there will be injuries and other opportunities for those young guys to come up. I don't have a problem with the prospects getting there chance somewhere throughout the season. I just don't want to be depending on them on Opening Day.

  3. Bill Smizik? Would that be Bob's brother? As for the recent signings, it is just another round of signing has beens, never has beens, and once wantabees. There is not a chance that the Pirates will approximate a major league team what with the worst defense in MLB. If the FO wanted to do something to help, they could have moved Walker to third, Alverez to first, Jones/Diaz to right, and found the best defensive middle infielders available with the money they paid Overbay. Didn't Jack Wilson come from St. Louis' AA team?

  4. Abundance of talent at AAA? The Pirates fast tracked Tabata and Alvarez to the bigs. They probably cost themselves super two arby with McCutchen by bringing him early. If they had any talent at AAA, let alone an abundance of it, don't you think they would be playing them? I'm excited about how the system is filling up with talent, from intructional, all the way to AA, but Altoona doesn't even have an abundance of that talent yet.
    Let's call it fairly. The Pirates are trying to improve the 2011 results on the field by surrounding core guys that we "hope" have an abundance of talent, with experienced low to mid tier talent. If AAA was actually filled with an abundance of talent, don't you think the Pirates would have it filling holes at the MLB level, while using that $18M to find an impact player?

  5. As I had written, none of the guys vying for 1B or RF have the upside of guys like Alvarez, McCutchen and Tabata. However, you cannot let them set the performance standard by which you determine who gets a promotion to the bigs. Guys like them don't come along too frequently for any team.

    Let's say you're right, though, and Bowker, Presley and Pearce don't deserve a shot at getting the start in those positions. You're suggesting that the recent signings were a necessity to compensate for the shortcomings of Jones, Doumit and Milledge, had we retained him.

    My question is this: have these recent signings addressed these holes in the 25-man in any significant way? Even if Diaz and Overbay give us ten extra wins, altogether, does it make a difference if we still lose over ninety games? And furthermore, does this kind of impact necessitate the money it cost to acquire them?

    Look at it this way: by your rationale, Neil Walker should have stayed in AAA.

    Also, in response to the previous comment, I think Alvarez and Walker need to stay at third and second if at all possible. Walker did pretty well there for a guy who had only begun to play that position earlier in the season, and Alvarez has shown that he is capable of making some great plays at third. Inconsistency can be expected of a rookie who has only played baseball professionally for two years; while he may ultimately move to first, doing so after he hasn't even played a full season is a bit premature.

    And finally, I apologize for the "Bill" and "Bob" mixup. From now on, he shall be referred to solely as The Smizik .

  6. Just like "Bill" Smizik..The Pirates didn't lose 107 games.They were 57-105..Do some research first before you write an article.

  7. It's true-I do not have an editor. In a blog entry that comprised analysis of multiple sources, I flubbed a name and a number that in no way affects my argument. Dumber than that, however, is assuming that it in some way counts as a lack of research on my part. Know what you're talking about before posting a comment?