Originally written on Pirates Prospects  |  Last updated 11/20/14

Last week I took an early look at the 2013 payroll, and followed that up with an early look at the 2014 payroll. The purpose of the looks is to see if the Pittsburgh Pirates project to have payroll space in the future for a big contract, such as a multi-year deal for Edwin Jackson. Continuing with the series, here is the way-too-early 2015 payroll projection.

Some notes before we go on:

-All projections were made with the assumption that the player played on the same level as their career results. I didn’t want to make any assumptions on breakout years, or major declines.

-Guaranteed contracts are in bold.

-The Pirates will have Charlie Morton eligible for free agency following the 2014 season. I didn’t include him on this list.

Now, let’s break down the payroll projection.

The Prospects

I added a lot of prospect projections in the 2014 estimate. Because most of those guys were first year players, and because there weren’t many people departing, I didn’t add many prospects this time around.

The one player I added was Ramon Cabrera. Cabrera replaces Michael McKenry, who would be arbitration eligible for the first time in 2015. I just can’t see the Pirates paying a backup catcher an arbitration price when they should have prospects available to fill the role.

I also removed Chris Leroux and Daniel McCutchen from the estimate. Both would have been arbitration eligible, but again I feel the Pirates could, and probably would, fill those spots with cheaper relievers.

Guaranteed Contracts

The Pirates have one guaranteed contract. That is Jose Tabata, making $4 M in 2015.

Third Year Arbitration Eligibles

The Pirates will have two big arbitration decisions in 2015. The first will be Andrew McCutchen. If no contract extension is signed, this would be his third, and final, year of arbitration. Neil Walker would also be in his third year of arbitration, although he projects as a Super Two player in 2013, so he’d be eligible one more time in 2016. The Pirates also have James McDonald eligible for arbitration for his final year.

Making Payroll Space

McDonald would be the easiest person to cut from the payroll. The rotation projects to have Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, and Kyle McPherson all making the league minimum. The Pirates shouldn’t have a problem coming up with two more starting pitchers by this point.

Then it becomes time for the topic that you can’t talk about in Pittsburgh: trading Andrew McCutchen. That’s not a popular concept for Pirates fans, since McCutchen is the best player on the team in 2012. It’s also a concept that gets brought up all the time as something that is inevitable, mostly because McCutchen doesn’t have a contract extension yet.

There are so many variables involved that no one can really say for sure what will happen with McCutchen. It’s far from being too late for him to sign an extension. If he doesn’t sign an extension, and goes year to year, I doubt the Pirates would deal him if they’re contending. It would probably be a similar situation to the Brewers and Prince Fielder.

But what if the Pirates run in to a situation where McCutchen is expendable? That’s hard to imagine in 2012. But what if Starling Marte lives up to his potential as an elite center fielder? What if Josh Bell pans out and is in the majors by 2015? What if the Pirates add someone in the 2012 or 2013 draft that can make an impact in the outfield by 2015 (Victor Roache?)?

McCutchen is untouchable right now. He’s probably untouchable for the next year or two. But we can’t say for sure whether trading McCutchen in 2015 — if he goes year to year and is about to head to free agency — is a good or bad thing.

As it stands in this projection, the Pirates could afford him, even at a high arbitration salary.

Second Year Arbitration Eligibles

The big question mark here is the salary of Pedro Alvarez. If he lives up to his potential, he’s going to get a lot more than this in his second year of arbitration. Brad Lincoln is also eligible for his second year of arbitration, and could get more than this depending on his role with the team at that point.

Making Payroll Space

If Lincoln is a number four or five starter, I can’t see him sticking with the team this long. If he’s a reliever, I can’t see him sticking around, unless he becomes a closer.

First Year Arbitration Eligibles

The Pirates will run in to another outfield situation with Alex Presley becoming eligible for arbitration. He could still be retained as a fourth outfielder, although it might be better for the Pirates to deal one of Presley or Tabata. As I mentioned above with McCutchen, a lot could change in the outfield in a few years. It could be that the Pirates don’t need McCutchen, Tabata, or Presley. I think it would be a bad sign if they needed all three of them. Or maybe Tabata will take his game to the next level, and Presley will carry some of his AAA stats over to the majors.

Making Payroll Space

Josh Harrison and Tony Watson could both be expendable with their projected bench/bullpen roles. Presley could also be expendable, depending on the outfield situation.

Estimated 2015 Payroll

The estimated payroll is around $56 M. This is a total shot in the dark, as it’s impossible to predict a payroll this far out.

The key will be the young players. The Pirates should get most of their impact from young players like Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Starling Marte, Kyle McPherson, Tony Sanchez and Alex Dickerson. All six players will be making close to the league minimum. They could potentially see two more starting pitchers and their starting shortstop also making close to the league minimum.

If the farm system produces as expected, the Pirates would be in a good position, payroll-wise. They wouldn’t have to worry about Andrew McCutchen’s big contract. They would be able to afford a free agent. And if they manage to become competitive in 2013 or 2014, they could see a payroll higher than the $50 M range in 2015.

Looking at the above payroll, the Pirates have some room to cut the budget. They could trim about $13-14 M from the above figure just by getting rid of McDonald, Lincoln, Presley, Watson, and Harrison. Again, getting players from the farm system would make that possible.

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