The 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates finished the season 72-90, which was “good” enough for a 4th place finish in the NL Central – which is actually the first time they didn’t finish in last place since 2006, and the first time they finished higher than 5th since 2003. So, there was definitely some improvement in 2011 – and in early July they were still in contention for the division. This is a team that’s in desperate need of a winning season – something they haven’t had since 1992 (the last year they had Barry Bonds).
I believe Pittsburgh’s problem is very similar to that of San Diego’s. For some reason they have convinced their fans that they have less money to work with than they actually do. Yes, Pittsburgh is the 6th smallest market in major league baseball. But, consider this: 2010 Pittsburgh Pirates payroll = $34.9 million . . . 1992 Pittsburgh Pirates payroll = $32.5 million. Now, I applaud the Pirates for having gone 9 seasons without raising ticket prices (they’re raising them by a little more than 5% for 2012 for the first time since 2002). Especially since the rest of the league averaged about a 40% increase over the same period of time – and, Pittsburgh has one of the newest stadiums in the league. But, there’s no chance the average ticket price is comparable to what it was 20 years ago. Meanwhile their payroll is. Additionally, 20 years ago they weren’t receiving anything in the form of shared revenue from the teams in larger markets. And, one of the public releases of that financial information showed Pittsburgh receiving $69.3 million in revenue sharing from 2007-2008! Add to this the fact that teams like Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Baltimore (all of which are in smaller TV markets than Pittsburgh) all had $30-40 million more on their payroll in 2011, and Pirates fans should be outraged. There’s no reason the Pittsburgh payroll couldn’t be in the $75 million range . . . other than greedy ownership.
So, let’s set the ownership’s lining of their pockets aside for a few minutes, and look at what the Pirates need to do in order to have a competitive team in 2012. We’ll stick with the $75 million payroll in order to make this reasonable – which is actually the first change that’s going to have to happen in Pittsburgh in order to have a playoff-calibur team . . . more reasonable spending by ownership. For 2012, there are only three players with guaranteed contracts (Jose Tabata, Pedro Alvarez, and Kevin Correia), whose contracts come to a total of $4.45 million. However, there are also several players that are pre-arbitration eligible (meaning they have less than 3 years’ service, and are only due the league minimum, and/or 80% of the previous year’s salary) – including starters Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker.
The most important arbitration-eligible player they have is Joel Hanrahan, who proved himself a reliable closer, saving 40 games (40 for a team that only won 72!), with an impressive 1.83 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. Hanrahan is worthy of a legit contract. Even though he only has one solid year under his belt, the Pirates need to hang on to him for a few years. A 4-year deal worth about $16-18 million should do the trick. That starts him out in the $2-3 million range for 2012, and doesn’t blow the bank open in the last year of the deal. There are also several arbitration eligible guys that aren’t going to command a huge salary in 2012, even if the Pirates want to keep them. Of the remaining 9 players that will be arbitration eligible, it would make the most sense to offer arbitration to Jeff Karstens (decent #3/#4 starter, will make $1.5-2 million in 2012), and Evan Meek (RHP reliver, injured most of 2011, but had 1.42 ERA in Sept., and 2.14 ERA in 2010; will likely make $1-1.5 million). That leaves a bunch of guys on the outside looking in, but Pittsburgh needs to do better than a lot of their guys did if they’re going to be a playoff contender.
Now, let’s look at team options that should be picked up. Paul Maholm is an absolute must. He’s a LHP starter that is at worst a #2 starter. Pittsburgh either needs to pick up his $9.75 million option, or lock him in for another 3-4 years with a deal worth $25-30 million. Getting a deal done would be less expensive for 2012, but if you had to, you could pick up the option, and then work on a deal for the next 3 years. As much as it pains me to say it, the Pirates should also pick up the $7.25 million option on Ryan Doumit. That is, unless they can work out a more reasonable deal (something in the 2-year/$10-12 million range). There just aren’t any great catcher options on the free agent market this year (the next best option for Pittsburgh would probably be Gerald Laird for a year or two at $1-2 million per year). And, the Pirates have an excellent catching prospect (Tony Sanchez – #9 C prospect in baseball) that will start the 2012 season at either the AA or AAA level. He just needs a year or two more before he’s ready for the big leagues. And, Doumit is a better option than Chris Snyder, who has a $6.75 million option for 2012. You don’t need to overpay two catchers, so just go with one. I’d also let Ronny Cedeno‘s $3 million option go. Worst case scenario, you still can pick up a guy like Alex Gonzalez for the same or less, who will be better on both sides of the ball.
At this point, we’ve spent around $29-30 million on 15 players. This includes 3 pitching prospects that are ready to make the jump to the big leagues in 2012 (Rudy Owens – LHP starter, Jeff Locke – LHP starter, and Bryan Morris – RHP reliever – Owens & Locke will likely battle it out for the #5 spot in the rotation, and the other will likely be a long left-handed reliever in the bullpen). Most everyone else from the 2011 team is eligible for free agency. The few that aren’t are pre-arbitration eligible, and will have to be sent to AAA, or possibly traded. So, the Pirates should have $40-45 million to fill the remaining 5 spots in the starting lineup, at least one free agent starting pitcher, a couple relievers, and another bench spot or two (Alex Presley and Josh Harrison are good young options that they already have available that can provide help off the bench and can play multiple positions).
Pitching wins championships, so let’s start there. You already have an excellent starter in Maholm, and a good-to-very-good Correia and Karstens, with a rookie in the #5 hole. With the kind of money Pittsburgh has left, I say they start by going after the best starting pitcher they can get. That could be C.J. Wilson, or Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda, or maybe even Mark Buehrle. And, as of a couple days ago, it looks as though the Phillies are not going to pick up Roy Oswalt‘s option, so Pittsburgh could take a run at him as well. I’m not sure there’s a price that should be too high – as long as it’s within reason. Anything between $10-15 million per year shouldn’t scare the Pirates off. Especially if it’s someone that will give you an excellent one-two punch at the top of your rotation. A right-hander would compliment Maholm the best (Jackson, Kuroda or Oswalt), but I wouldn’t let that stop me from going after Wilson, who may be the best pitcher on the market this offseason. Let’s say the Pirates get a deal done with one of these guys for something in the neighborhood of 4-years/$50-60 million, and the first year is worth $12 million. The bullpen is the next hole to fill. With Meek on the right-hand side, I’d say the Pirates need one dominant left-handed reliever to shore up the bullpen. Lefty’s that will be available (and worth the price) include Koji Uehara and Javier Lopez – either of which would be a nice addition for around $3-5 million per year. After that, they could add a reasonably priced right-hander to fill the gap – someone like Shawn Camp, or Lance Cormier, or even their own Jose Veras if they can get something done with him to avoid arbitration. Let’s say the Pirates add one top-tier starter, one top-tier left-handed reliever, and one fill-in reliever all for around $16-17 million.
That leaves $23-29 million to fill in the remaining 5 starter positions. That’s not enough to go after Fielder or Pujols, but they have too many holes to consider doing that anyway. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, their biggest home run threat in 2011 was also their lead-off hitter, and biggest stolen base threat – Andrew McCutchen. So, they need to find guys that can be power threats, but don’t necessarily have to be 30+ home-run threats. If you aren’t going after Pujols or Fielder, then first base isn’t the place to find that this year. So, Lyle Overbay may be the answer this season – a guy that will hit around 15 home runs, doesn’t strike out a ton, and is a solid defensive first-baseman. You sign him for a year or two ($4 million per), in hopes that another free agent, or a rookie will come along to take over. Alex Gonzalez at short for $2.5-3 million gives you some veteran leadership in the clubhouse, and a good glove. Greg Dobbs can platoon at 3B along with Josh Harrison for a year or two, with the hope that Harrison will develop into your everyday third-baseman – plus, Dobbs will come very cheap, at $750k-1 mil. That leaves us with the outfield to spend around $20 million on. Based on what’s available now, and seeking to put together a playoff-calibur team for 2012, I might would have to go with the combination of Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel. Here’s the interesting twist – if the Mariners don’t offer arbitration to Jack Cust, he would be a steal for $4-6 million per year, which would then allow Pittsburgh to make a legit run at . . . Carlos Beltran.
So, for $75 million, or less, the Pirates starting lineup could be 1. McCutchen, 2. Walker, 3. Cust, 4. Beltran, 5. Overbay, 6. Doumit, 7. Gonzalez, 8. Dobbs/Harrison. Or, you could replace Cust/Beltran with Kubel/Cuddyer. The starting rotation could then be Oswalt, Maholm, Correia, Karstens and Owens/Locke. And the bullpen would consist of Meek, Morris, Owens/Locke, Uehara, Veras, and Hanrahan. I think that’s a significant upgrade from 2011, and could put this team on track to make the playoffs for the first time in 20 years. What do you think?