Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Money will always matter to the Pirates

With the Pirates skidding around lately (the sweep of the Cardinals notwithstanding), there's been a lot of talk that the moves made at the trade deadline were financially based more than anything. I am indeed mostly referring to a column from he-who-shall-not-be-named, but this is an important issue to the team and the future of the franchise and it's something that I think a lot of people misunderstand, so I'm going to take some time to talk about it here.

The most important thing here to understand is that it's not money that's going to make the Pirates good. Bob Nutting has OK'd a slight raise in payroll for 2009 and that's a good thing, but expecting signings that are going to turn the team into contenders is expecting too much. Consider the following numbers from the Brewers during Doug Melvin's run as general manager (exact payroll figures can be found here, exact win totals are from Baseball Reference with me estimating them at 87 wins for this year).

What should be apparent from the graphs is that Melvin, who inherited a situation pretty similar to the junk heap dumped on Neal Huntington's front lawn last fall, first cut pay pretty drastically, then built the payroll back up as the young talent matured. Now, a fair criticism of my little model here is that the Brewers were sold in 2004 by the Selig family to Mark Attanasio, which is why the salary bottomed out so severely that year. Even taking that into account, the big jump in payroll didn't come until the 2006 season, which followed the 82 win breakthrough year in 2005 that portended their contending in 2007 and 2008. Talent first, money second. Young talent is cheap, so the payroll will be low for a while. That's how it works.

The Pirates have more money to spend than they're spending. That doesn't mean the need to spend it right now. Federal Street doesn't have an endless cashflow like the Steinbrenners do. Teams like the Yankees and Red Sox have their own TV networks and have such a loyal legion of fans that they can hold cable companies hostage for the broadcasting rights and pull in millions and probably even billions of dollars in revenues that creates a bottomless pit of money to be spent on baseball teams. The Pirates will have a limited budget for the forseeable future. That's not to say that they can't contend, that's to say that they can't contend if the money isn't spent wisely.

Having money to spend isn't a new phenomenon to the Pirates. They almost doubled their payroll between 2000 and 2001 ($29,600,000 to $57,760,833). Of that money, over $20 million was spent on Kevin Young, Pat Meares, Omar Olivares, and Derek Bell, and Terry Mulholland. By 2004, the payroll was back down to around $32 million. Maybe money was a factor in the Jose Bautista trade, but is $3 million (Bautista's likely pricetag in arbitration) well spent on a utility guy when players like Doug Mientkiewicz exist and offer similar production for $750,000-$1.5 million? Money has to be a factor for the Pirates, but it only becomes the limiting one if they let it. Throwing $10 million into the 2008 Pirates might've made them a 75 or 77 win team and it would've been $10 million that could've been spent extending Maholm or McLouth or signing draft picks in 2009. The same thing can likely be said for the 2009 Pirates. It might not apply to the 2010 or 2011 Pirates, though, and when that team can add $15 million to it's payroll to go from an 80 win team to a 90 win team, and when that happens, we're going to be happy that the money isn't locked up in an extension for Xavier Nady or a stupid contract we gave to Jon Garland before the 2009 season.