The Pittsburgh Pirates have the second lowest payroll in all of baseball. That makes it difficult to field to field a winner. Every offseason there are multiple star players available via free agency who could help change the trajectory of a franchise. But each year, Pirate fans can nearly ignore this crucial period of team-building because those star players get signed for contracts the Pirates can't (or won't) touch. In some cases, the amount given to one player in free-agency is more than the Pirate's entire 25-man roster. That makes it impossible for the Pirates to compete, right? As Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast my friend." This week, the Tampa Bay Rays clinched their fourth playoff birth in the last ten years. That might not sound all that impressive except when you consider the Ray's 2019 payroll is $8 million less than the Pirates.
So how have the Rays done it? Conventional wisdom says that small market teams need to draft well and develop that talent all the way to the majors. While the Rays have done some of that over the years, the current Rays team isn't made up of a whole lot of home-grown talent. Take a look at their roster. It is filled with players who were brought to Tampa via trade. Trades that have obviously worked out well for the Rays.
Trading with Tampa Bay is a bit of a touchy subject with Pirate fans, as Neil Huntington was a victim of one the most lopsided trades in recent memory to the benefit of the Rays. Sending Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow to Tampa for Chris Archer is robbery. Austin Meadows is currently the best player on Tampa's playoff-bound roster and Tyler Glasnow looked like a Cy Young candidate in limited action.
In all fairness to the Pirates, they had some early injuries that accounted for a decent chunk of the payroll, but no one who would have made the difference in them being a playoff team. They are also 13th in the MLB this year in retained salary - salary for players who are currently not on the roster. This number totals more than $20 million. It will be interesting to see how much of that $20 million gets put back into the roster next season.
So what's the difference? Both teams have the payroll hurdles to contend with. Neither team has much of a shot at the top free agents. But one team is no stranger to the playoffs and the other is the Pirates.
The difference, to me, is that the Rays seem to have a clear plan for how to build a roster and which players in their system (and outside it) can contribute to a winning team in Tampa. The Pirate's front office have looked like captains with no compass - simply letting their ship sail where the wind takes them (excuse the corny illustration, but it fits!).
The trade between the two teams is a perfect example of what I am talking about. At the time of the trade for Chris Archer, the Pirates were an overachieving 56-52 team. Anyone could watch them and see that there wasn't enough special about that team to spend their farm system on one player, but that's what the Pirates did.
The Rays were in a very similar spot to the Pirates at that time. They were 54-53 and, like the Pirates, could have justified making a splash move aimed at a playoff run that year, but they had the end-game in mind. Instead of mortgaging their future for one player, they chose to build a roster that could compete in the future.
The Pirate's side of that trade felt to me like a splash move for the sake of it. A big move to show fans they're willing. An attempt to shed the cheap, boring reputation they earned. Neil Huntington expressed that adding Archer was reflective of his belief that the team was built to win then. He must've saw something I didn't. The Pirates went 26-27 the rest of the way and missed the playoffs.
I do not expect the Pirates to be competitive annually. I get the headwinds they face, but the Rays over the last decade have shown that it can be done. It's on the Pirate's front office to learn and adjust. Their unwillingness or inability to do that is on them.