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Starting The Pirates Over With $120M Budget

Image result for ice bear we bare bears doing math

Hello, welcome to the doldrums of the Pirates’ offseason. It’s the same as the rest of this Pirate offseason, just without the Gerrit Cole drama.

We’re in the part of the season where the Pirates are going to kick the tires on players in the scratch and dent section of free agency, but before the arbitration figure exchange portion of the offseason. So here’s a thought experiment to while away the boringness. What if every current player in the Majors suddenly became a free agent, but kept their existing contracts?

I’ve long thought that the Pirates should be operating on a $120M budget, based on the revenues estimated by both us and Forbes that put them in the $260M range. That would put them, roughly, in the 45% revenue-to-payroll threshold. So let’s see how good of a team we could put together under that budget.

But first, here’s a few restraints I put on myself:

  1. I didn’t select any players on 1 year deals or players that are currently free agents.
  2. I used MLB Trade Rumors’ estimates for players currently in arbitration, then ran out the remaining years using our 25%/40%/60% model (and the 20%/33%/50%/70% model for Super Two players).
  3. In an effort to make this a sustainable team, I ran out the payroll projections for five years. I upped the budget 5% in each successive season. In an effort to please my imaginary owner, I committed to meet the budget in 2018 and 2019 and would then re-assess after that.

I really wanted Mike Trout on my team. He’s the best player in baseball and a potential future inner circle Hall of Famer. It’s actually disappointing how underrated Trout is in the bigger picture.

But that $34M salary over the next three years is a bear to fit in on a $120M budget, especially when the young players I selected to counterbalance his salary started to hit arbitration. My first iteration at this experiment came in at $117M for 2018 (great!), but the 2019 salary total was $155M and well over the $126M budget for 2019 (not great!).

I also had Kenley Jansen and Marcell Ozuna in the first iteration, but removed both of them because their 2019 salaries were part of the problem for the ballooning budget figure — Ozuna was estimated to be making around $18M in 2019 on our arb model and Jansen jumped from $11M to $20M under his existing contract.

So sadly, I had to cut these three players and go a little cheaper, but with more of a sustainable view in mind. I went with Starling Marte in place of Ozuna in LF, George Springer in place of Trout in CF, and Roberto Osuna in place of Kenley Jansen at closer.

Here’s the 25-man roster with all the salaries for the next five years. Arbitration estimates are in red.

Name 2017 WAR 2018 Age 2018 Salary 2019 Salary 2020 Salary 2021 Salary 2022 Salary
C JT Realmuto 3.6 27 $4,200,000 $6,720,000 $10,080,000 FA
1B C. Bellinger 4.0 22 $550,000 $550,000 $550,000 $5,000,000 $8,000,000
2B J. Altuve 7.5 28 $6,000,000 $6,500,000 FA
SS C. Seager 5.7 24 $550,000 $5,000,000 $8,000,000 $12,000,000 FA
3B J. Ramirez 6.6 25 $2,828,000 $4,150,000 $6,650,000 $9,400,000 $11,000,000
LF S. Marte 1.2 29 $7,833,333 $10,333,333 $11,500,000 $12,500,000 FA
CF G. Springer 4.5 28 $8,900,000 $14,240,000 $21,360,000 FA
RF A. Judge 8.2 26 $550,000 $550,000 $550,000 $6,500,000 $10,400,000
Backup C C. Vasquez 1.6 27 $1,500,000 $2,400,000 $3,600,000 FA
Backup IF O. Arcia 1.2 23 $550,000 $550,000 $2,500,000 $4,000,000 $6,000,000
Backup IF A. Bregman 3.8 24 $550,000 $550,000 $3,500,000 $5,600,000 $8,400,000
Backup OF C. Taylor 4.7 27 $550,000 $3,500,000 $5,600,000 $8,400,000 FA
Backup OF R. Hoskins 2.2 25 $550,000 $550,000 $550,000 $4,000,000 $6,400,000
SP1 C. Sale 7.7 29 $12,500,000 $15,000,000 FA
SP2 C. Kluber 7.3 32 $10,700,000 $13,200,000 $13,500,000 $14,000,000 FA
SP3 J. Quintana 3.9 29 $8,850,000 $10,500,000 $10,500,000 FA
SP4 M. Fulmer 3.5 25 $550,000 $4,000,000 $6,000,000 $9,000,000 $12,600,000
SP5 J. Taillon 2.9 26 $550,000 $550,000 $3,000,000 $4,800,000 $7,200,000
CL R. Osuna 3.0 23 $5,600,000 $8,960,000 $13,440,000 FA
Setup F. Rivero 2.1 26 $3,100,000 $4,650,000 $6,975,000 $9,765,000 FA
Setup C. Green 2.3 27 $550,000 $550,000 $2,500,000 $4,000,000 $5,600,000
Bullpen T. Kahnle 2.1 28 $1,300,000 $2,080,000 $3,120,000 FA
Bullpen A. Bradley 2.1 25 $550,000 $2,500,000 $4,000,000 $6,000,000 FA
Bullpen B. Parker 1.6 33 $1,700,000 $2,720,000 $4,080,000 FA
Bullpen C. Devenski 1.4 27 $550,000 $2,000,000 $3,200,000 $4,800,000 FA
94.70 $81,611,333 $122,303,333 $144,755,000 $119,765,000 $75,600,000
Budget $120,000,000 $126,000,000 $132,300,000 $138,915,000 $145,860,750

As you can see by the 2017 WAR totals for these 25 players, this team would be practically unbeatable. Using the rule of thumb that you take a team’s WAR and add it to a baseline of 48, this team would finish with 143 wins.

Now while this isn’t realistic, there are some observations to tease out from this experiment. First, every team does some variation of this for their own 25-man roster. When you hear Neal Huntington say that he’s thinking of making not only the current year’s Pirate team great, but also subsequent years, this is what he’s talking about. He has to weigh how awarding a contract may affect decisions down the line, especially on the paltry budgets he’s allotted.

It also highlights just how vital it is to get impact contributions from players making minimum salaries. The Dodgers and Astros are well-represented on my theoretical roster, with four players making the minimum next year and Altuve/Springer making below-market salaries . It shouldn’t be a surprise that these two teams met in the World Series.

You can also see how signing homegrown players to early-career extensions can pay off. I mentioned early on that I had to substitute out Marcel Ozuna for Starling Marte because of Ozuna’s potentially large 2019 arbitration salary in his final year. Both Ozuna and Marte are roughly 4 WAR players, albeit in different manners. But Marte stays between $10 and $11M on his contract, while Ozuna’s arbitration salary could be $18M next year. That $7M was vital in my roster construction.

This roster, albeit virtually unbeatable, would raise some eyebrows amongst a subset of fans for being a “cheap” roster. But as you can see, stars cost a lot of money in arbitration. At some point, I’d probably have to trade off Roberto Osuna before his last season in 2020 in order to help make budget that year. Or hope that my farm system could continue to churn out impact talent, even if I’m picking at the end of each round.

Assembling a roster of essentially All-Stars is easy. Keeping them together and being able to afford them for an extended period of time is the challenge.

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.