Winning requires ‘more than just player payroll,’ but you also need that

Payroll isn’t everything when building a competitive team, but that doesn’t mean you can outright ignore it like the Pirates plan to.

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The Pirates had their annual fan fest — PiratesFest — over the weekend, and made a point of saying that the questions weren’t pre-screened. The answer to one, about payroll, stuck out in a way that I think requires a little bit more analysis. Here’s the TribLive story it lives in:

What will it take, in terms of a financial commitment, to make the Pirates a winning organization once again?

“Commitment to win requires more than just player payroll,” said [team president Travis] Williams, flanked on stage by general manager Ben Cherington and manager Derek Shelton. “There’s lots of ways we can invest within the organization to put us in a position to win. That can be through identifying talent, acquiring talent, developing talent and then obviously deploying talent on the field. Payroll, while important, is not the most important factor in terms of how we get to building a championship-caliber team for our fans.

“There’s an absolute commitment from (chairman) Bob Nutting to myself, to Ben, to Derek that we build a playoff- and championship-caliber team for this fan base. They deserve it. I know they want it. We hear it all the time. We certainly want to do that here as well, and we’re doing it every day, day in, day out, to make that happen.”

All of that is true, in a vacuum. A high payroll alone isn’t enough to win. You need to spend the money on the right players, or, also be sure you’re willing to keep spending when some of that cash ends up going to the wrong players. You need to find talent in places other than free agency, have some coaching and player development success stories… the list goes on.

Here’s the thing, though: payroll is still an important part of things, and while it might not be the single-most important factor on its own given even its own deployment must be contextually appropriate, there does need to be an actual investment in the payroll. You can’t just run a roster out there full of league-minimum or close players, and hope for the best. You need to be willing to provide further investment into the team when the chance to win is there for you, which, Pirates fans need no reminder of, is something the organization did not do the last time they were relevant in this way. Which is also why they, nearly as quickly as they became relevant, once again irrelevant.

The Pirates finished in second place in the NL Central from 2013 through 2015. They did win 94 and 98 games in two of those campaigns while making the postseason in all three, so it’s not like they weren’t any good or anything. In fact, the opposite is true: they were very good, but they also built all of that off of player development and coaching that let them find some hidden gems on the cheap. Impressive, that they could do so well with so little being spent, but how much better would they have been if they had actually invested in the club? If they hadn’t ranked 26th, 28th, and 24th in league payroll in those three seasons, and had actually opened up their wallets and spent money that we know they had despite their claims otherwise? Maybe they would have won the NL Central in one of those years, and not suffered consecutive Wild Card round defeats, one of which came when they were a 98-win club. The Cardinals won just two more games than that Pirates team, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility: it’s in fact extremely possible that more spending to get a final piece or two would have won them the Central, and then, who knows?

Pittsburgh hasn’t won a World Series since 1979, so the effort is always going to be worth it to snap that streak and bring a championship back to the city. And that effort is going to end up costing some money. The Pirates don’t need to lead the league in payroll or jump into the top 10 by any means, but… alright, here’s some context. There are two years on file at Cot’s Contracts, which has complete data back through 2000, in which the Pirates were in the top 20 for Opening Day payroll. In one, 2003, they were exactly 20th, and in 2001, they were 19th. They’ve been dead last more often since 2000 than they’ve been a top-20 team by payroll! They aren’t even trying to spend at all. So, it might all sound good, what Williams is saying to the fans, but we’re still talking about a team that won 76 games in 2023, that might be better than that in 2024, that might develop many of the players it needs and identify low-cost options to bring in and help, too. But as of now they’re also a team that’s ranked between 27th and 30th in the league in payroll every season since 2018, that, as of now, looks like they might actually have a lower Opening Day payroll in 2024 than they did a year ago.

Payroll alone isn’t the most important thing. But it is a vital piece of the puzzle — everyone lauding the Diamondbacks for being a lower cost team making the World Series should realize they finished 2023 at 21st in payroll, $43 million up on the Pirates… and have already added another $20 million for 2024 on top of that. The Pirates are sticking right where they are on the payroll side despite claiming their chances are looking better and better every day. At a time when the NL Central is as weak as it is, the Pirates are still so openly cheap that they can’t even pay lip service to spending. That doesn’t bode well in the long run, for the next time a real opportunity presents itself like it did a decade ago, when this same ownership group watched it slip away.

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