The Pirates are one team that can get better, on a budget, this winter
The Pittsburgh Pirates have some things going for them. They may be one of the two least valuable teams in baseball, they may play in the sport's fifth-smallest market, and they may endure all the woes that come with holding the record for most consecutive losing seasons in a major American sport, but they don't spend a lot, and like all other low-end ball clubs they have the help of rich cousins.
While the exact numbers are the subject of a colorful dispute right now, it's believed that, like several other major league teams, the Pirates -- who we're using here as a case study for how a struggling team can boost its fortunes on this winter's free-agent market -- take in more money from central baseball than they spend on big league players. There are two sources of cash here. One is a fixed amount of money that each team draws from the sport's national broadcast contracts, online revenues and the like; the other is a transfer of money away from wealthy teams through the luxury tax. Baseball zealously guards exact figures, but a conservative estimate from several years ago put the Pirates' income from just these two sources at $50 million to $60 million -- more than their payroll in each of the past two seasons.
More important for the Pirates, though, is that they aren't wasting this money. They owe a hair under $15 million to players under contract for 2010, none making even $5 million. They also have several arbitration cases coming up, which in a worst-case scenario might end up costing them $10 million. Add in another $7 million or so to pay the minimum salary for each remaining roster spot and that leaves them, if they hold their Opening Day payroll where it has been for the last two years, with about $18 million to spend.
A team with that much available isn't all that bad off. Free agents are relatively cheap these days. Over the last few years more teams have begun applying the sort of basic cost-benefit analysis to acquisitions that your dry cleaner uses to decide whether or not to buy fancy new equipment; the recession also has teams unwilling to spend, and there are even some not entirely insane claims of quasi-collusion from agents and the players' union. All of this has driven player prices down. At this point, in fact, one wonders if the smart play for teams like the Pirates might not be to go out and get some of those middling veterans that they've been counseled to avoid for many years.
Take as a given that the Pirates can't and won't contend next year, and that having traded off basically all their veterans of any value over the last year and a half, the best they can do is set themselves up to avoid an 18th straight losing season -- if things break well for them. Signing pitchers is probably out; even a mediocre starter such as
The first order of business is to evaluate how good the team is. Pittsburgh's pitching is pretty dire. According to the
That brings us to their position players. Combining offensive projections from
Take shortstop, where the Pirates' nominal starter is
Similarly, the Pirates plan to run
Finally, at third the Pirates will play
Put all that together and the Pirates would project at about minus-25 runs offensively -- even worse than the present iteration -- but at about plus-40 defensively, enough to rate in the top five teams in baseball. In all such a series of signings would represent a positive swing of four or five wins, leave enough left over to sign a starter or a couple of cheap relievers, and give the team's dodgy young pitchers their best possible chance to succeed. And it would do all this without taking serious playing time away from any young player that the team needs to develop (even Milledge could be assured plenty of playing time as part of an outfield rotation), costing draft picks or assuming any dead weight in long-term contracts.
The point here isn't that the Pirates need to do this or that. Previous regimes made far too much of a botch of the draft and player development for there to be any easy answers here, and the team just doesn't have the young pitching or the money to engineer a monumental turnaround the way teams such as Tampa Bay, Seattle and Texas have in recent years. You also have to laud a commitment to play the likes of Milledge and LaRoche if only to see what they have.
Still, even before looking at the coming flood of non-tendered veterans, it's clear that there's plenty of cheap help on the market for any team that wants it, help cheap enough even for the Pirates. And if that's so, there's no team that can't meaningfully help itself this winter. Baseball may not have a level playing field, but there's little excuse for any team not to enter next spring more respectable than it is now.