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Pirates 2020 Payroll: Backfiring Correctly

If Jung Ho Kang would have hit 40 HRs this year while playing plus defense and/or if Francisco Cervelli would have repeated his 2018 on the offensive side, and maintained his good defense of 2019, then the Pirates would have had to consider offering one or both a Qualifying Offer. I believe that it was the possible QO ?s that motivated some of the offseason of 2019 ?s spending habits as much as our 2020 arbitration class. With neither playing well to warrant a QO, it has set us up well for 2020 and beyond. Let’s delve into the numbers.

How 2020 is setting up

In Major League baseball you may have a player making $575K that leads the league in WAR or Innings Pitched. You might have another player making $25M that is barely playable or who is injured the whole season. When you take this variability between individual players and multiply it over the entire 25 man roster you ?ll have a hard time predicting how good a team is based on the payroll.

As I planned to write this article I was prepared to be mad at the Pirates. Much has been made of how the Pirates didn ?t spend much this offseason and the ?excuse ? was that the Pirates had a big arbitration class coming in 2020 and they had to save money for future raises. But I knew that Cervelli’s contract was coming off the books, as well as knowing that 1st year Arb players don’t get paid that much. In this article I wanted to dig into the payroll for 2020 season and see if what they were saying is true or if it was my guess of the possible Qualifying Offer buffer.

In 2020 it is accurate that the following players will go to arbitration the first time:

Josh Bell

Jameson Taillon

Joe Musgrove

Trevor Williams

Adam Frazier

Chad Kuhl

Elias Diaz

Erik Gonzalez

Also, Michael Feliz will hit arbitration for the second time and Keone Kela for the third and final time. Obviously, seven of the eight first timers are most notable since they are the core of our team. Sorry Erik Gonzalez.

Using the info from Cots Contracts I get next year’s payroll estimated using a small bump in league min salary, the known contracts like Vasquez, Marte, etc. and Arbitration comps from this year:

Player 2020 salary/estimate 2018 Arbitration comps
Cervelli, Francisco 0
Marte, Starling 11,500,000
Dickerson, Corey 0
Archer, Chris 9,000,000
Polanco, Gregory 8,500,000
Vazquez, Felipe 5,750,000
Kang, Jung-Ho 0
Chisenhall, Lonnie 0
Lyles, Jordan 0
Liriano, Francisco 0
Cabrera, Melky 0
Shuck, J.B. 0
Rodriguez, Richard 650,000
Taillon, Jameson 4,500,000 Lance McCullers ? $4.6MM, Steven Matz ? $3.0MM
Bell, Josh 4,000,000 Tommy Pham ? $4.0MM, Miguel Sano ? $3.1MM
Frazier, Adam 2,050,000 Delino DeShields Jr. ? $1.9MM
Williams, Trevor 4,500,000 Lance McCullers ? $4.6MM, Steven Matz ? $3.0MM
Musgrove, Joe 4,500,000 Lance McCullers ? $4.6MM, Steven Matz ? $3.0MM
Diaz, Elias 1,500,000 Greg Bird ? $1.5MM
Kuhl, Chad 2,000,000 Cam Bedrosian ? $1.7MM
Gonzalez, Erik 2,000,000 Delino DeShields Jr. ? $1.9MM
Feliz, Michael 2,500,000 Chad Bettis ? $3.2MM
Kela, Keone 5,750,000 Dellin Betances ? $6.4MM
Crick, Kyle 591,500
Santana, Edgar 591,500
Moran, Colin 591,500
Brault, Steven 591,500
Osuna, Jose 591,500
Kingham, Nick 591,500
Neverauskas, Dovydas 591,500
Reyes, Pablo 591,500
Stallings, Jacob 591,500
Burdi, Nick 591,500
Newman, Kevin 591,500
Brubaker, J.T. 591,500
Escobar, Luis 591,500
Holmes, Clay 591,500
Keller, Mitch 591,500
Kramer, Kevin 591,500
Liranzo, Jesus 591,500
Martin, Jason 591,500
Tucker, Cole 591,500

The 80M total estimate is a little high for a couple reasons. The 40-man players don’t actually count for full ML league min salaries unless they’re on the 25-man roster so that gives an extra $3-4M of buffer.

I also picked some players for Arb comps that play for teams that don’t really battle in Arbitration so the estimates might be a half million higher here and there.

Regardless, we have a payroll commitment of $75-80M in 2020.

The Qualifying Offer Problem That Won’t Be

No way do the Pirates want to sign Jung Ho Kang to a multi-year contract after this season. It will be surprising if he even lasts the whole season in Pittsburgh. Going into the offseason, they knew he was in great shape, presumably good enough shape to play some shortstop. They also know his history of annihilating fastballs. Prior to this season, Kang was in rare company as far as OPS against fastballs:

Best OPS vs 4seam fastballs, min 1k fastballs, PFx era:

1) J-H Kang
2) R Healy
3) T Mancini
4) J Votto
5) J Soler
6) M Trout
7) G Springer

? Eno Sarris (@enosarris) September 11, 2017

Plus defense at 3B/SS and 40 HRs is a 5 WAR player and worthy of Free Agent bidding. Fortunately the Pirates have a built in excuse not to bring him back with Ke’Bryan Hayes waiting in the wings. Best case scenario is that the Pirates would have offered him a Qualifying Offer, Kang turns it down and the Pirates get an extra pick in the supplemental round. But they had to have the payroll flexibility to be ready for him to accept. Keith Law always says “there is no bad one year contract”– Kang at 1 year, $18M would be really pricey for the Pirates but if he was hitting 30 HRs a year and playing good defense, while easing Hayes’ transition, it wouldn’t be bad. Josh Harrison got paid $11M last year for a terrible season.

Francisco Cervelli is the same story, but I believed he had a much more likely chance of receiving a Qualifying Offer and therefore turning it down. Catching is so scarce in MLB. Cervelli provides great handling of pitchers, average framing and normally high OBP. That type of commodity is worth a 3/$45M contract and possibly more. A denied QO was a very likely scenario when the season started, but you had to be ready for him to accept, take the high one year salary and gamble on repeating the same level of performance.

While I still think Cervelli might be brought back next year, it’ll be on a Pirates’ type contract (2/$16M with 10M option?). Regardless, I don’t think the chance of either getting a QO is going to happen. This means we have some payroll money to spend/extend players.

How to Spend the $18M+ On Payroll

  1. Extend Bell – Possibly the face of the franchise for next 6 years. He doesn’t have a ton of leverage as he turns 27 in August, the Pirates control him for 3 years and he’s a 1B. Hard to guess what kind of contract would do it. I’d go longer with less per year. Maybe 7/$80M. DH decision determines a lot about the likelihood.
  2. Extend Taillon – He might have waffled in his no-extension stance. His value is looking similar to his two rotation mates rather than a tier above them currently. Luis Severino got 4/$40M and Blake Snell got 5/$50M. Maybe Taillon gets 5/$45M.
  3. Extend Musgrove and Williams – Williams and Musgrove seem like the most likely of the group to be Pirates in 4 years. Maybe a deal similar to Taillon 5/$45M.
  4. Bring back Cervelli – as discussed above
  5. Bring back Lyles – if Lyles keeps this up he’s an easy 3 year contract for $15M/year, probably too expensive for Pirates at this place, but if he’d take a Nova type deal to stay, maybe Pirates do it.
  6. Bring back the Melk-man – a really good hitter is a thing of beauty. Reynolds and Martin might make him superfluous but he’s sure be fun to have around.
  7. Next version of Lyles, Melk-Man – in this day and age of veterans not getting paid, offering a decent player a shot at a 25 man roster spot/rotation spot is a really good way to get some value, as we are seeing this year with Lyles and Melky. Wouldn’t be a bad annual plan.

If the 2019 team continues to play well and the minors keep producing, that extra money we have in 2020’s payroll could be a nice feather in our cap for years forward.

Michael is a Pirates contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. Michael is former submarine officer and Naval Academy grad. He now runs a small consulting firm and does veteran related job fairs. He is a SABR member and regularly attends Altoona Curve games to scout the Pirate prospects.

5 Comments on Pirates 2020 Payroll: Backfiring Correctly

  1. This has solid research and reasoning, but it makes the very tenuous assumption that the club will spend more on payroll in 2020. Given the reasoning justifying this year’s payroll spending (or lack thereof) lies somewhere on the spectrum between debatable and specious, it’s hard to have faith that the club will spend significantly above the current level next season

  2. Phillip C-137 // May 24, 2019 at 3:11 AM // Reply

    Thanks for throwing out the idea that a “possible” need to tender a QO played a part in the 2019 decision to go low with the payroll. I hadn’t considered that possibility and it may have been considered in a worst case (worst case for the payroll) scenario.

    So, due to your motivation, here’s a few factoids to consider.
    1. I think the last guys offered QO’s were Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano after the 2014 season.

    2. Here’s the highest paid Pirate per year, last 10 seasons.
    – 2019 $11.5 mil Cervelli
    – 2018 $10.5 Cervelli
    – 2017 $14.2 McCutchen
    – 2016 $13.7 Liriano
    – 2015 $11.7 Liriano
    – 2014 $13.0 Wandy Rodriguez
    – 2013 $16.5 A. J. Burnett
    – 2012 $16.5 A. J. Burnett
    – 2011 $6.3 Paul Maholm, Chris Snyder
    – 2010 $5.0 Paul Maholm

    3. With the QO sitting around $18 million, that’s about $6-$8 million more than they want to fork out for any one player.

    4. Cot’s Contracts hasn’t updated the Pirates page lately so guys like Reynolds, DuRapau and Hartlieb aren’t factored in.

    5. Bell’s agent is the Boras Corp. (Big time BAD NEWS.)

    With so many core guys set to hit Arbitration the next 3 seasons I think they’ll sit on their cash, other than cheap-ish free agents. And after the 2023 season is my guess when the next Pirate will be offered a QO.

    • Hate to break it to you, but the salary for Rodriguez and two for Burnett aren’t representative, as Houston and New York respectively paid a large majority of those contracts.

      • Phillip C-137 // May 24, 2019 at 3:18 PM // Reply

        Thanks and that explains why these amounts were such outliers.

        So throwing out Rodriquez and Burnett the high guys were
        – 2014 $9.5 mil Russell Martin
        – 2013 $7.5 Russell Martin
        – 2012 $5.0 Clint Barmes

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