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One of the consistent excuses to explain the Pittsburgh Pirates’ lack of competitiveness over the past two decades is the “small market, low payroll” answer. That in itself should frustrate to fans, because when Pirates’ ownership financed the building of $216,000,000 PNC Park- a large portion of which using taxpayer dollars- fans were promised competitive payrolls, for which they are still waiting. The Pirates continue to be among the lowest spenders in baseball, and many years are within the bottom 2-3 MLB franchises in payroll.
The 3rd in a fairly consistent lineage; image credit sportsillustrated
But often overlooked is that even when the Pirates DO spend money on free agents, it’s nearly always a disaster. Dating from the days of former GM Cam Bonifay, through the deposed Dave Littlefield, continuing into current GM Neal Huntington’s tenure, Pirates’ general managers waste money on veterans that often times end up being worse than a “replacement level” player.The following list shows Neal Huntington’s significant free agent in-season trade additions since taking over the role as GM in the fall of 2007. Each player, yearly dollar figure, and WAR (wins above a replacement level player) are shown, minus free agents making less than $500,000 per season. GMs often times must fill out the back end of a MLB roster- or make AAA depth moves- with such contracts, and those should not be held against Huntington.
OF Jason Michaels $2.200MM -0.9 WAR
INF Chris Gomez $1.000MM 0.0 WAR (retired after 2008)
RP Tyler Yates $0.800MM 0.1 WAR
1B Doug Mientkiewicz $0.750MM 1.1 WAR
INF Luis Rivas $0.525MM -0.6 WAR (retired after 2008)
Cumulative spent in 2008: $5,275,000
Cumulative WAR of 2008: -0.3
% of free agent additions that retired after the 2008 season: 40%
Overall: Huntington was given little play money in his first offseason as Pirates’ GM, but did very little with it. Doug Mientkiewicz was by far the best addition with a 1.1 WAR, but he also only hit 2 HR at a position (1B) in which power is a requirement. It’s generally considered that a $5,000,000/year player is worth 1.0 WAR. Huntington spent over $5MM, and ended 2008 with a -0.3 WAR, meaning the five players he added together were [i]worse[/i] than replacement players promoted internally to fill those roles.
INF Ramon Vazquez $1.875MM -0.5 WAR (retired after 2009)
RP Tyler Yates $1.300MM -0.6 WAR (retired after 2009)
OF Craig Monroe $0.750MM -0.3 WAR (retired after 2009)
OF Jeff Salazar $0.550MM -0.3 WAR (retired after 2009)
Cumulative spent in 2009: $4,475,000
Cumulative WAR of 2009: -1.7
% of free agent additions that retired after the 2009 season: 100%
Overall: Huntington was given even less payroll flexibility in 2009. It was nearly impossible to take Pirates’ ownership at their word of fielding “competitive payrolls” when their 2-year combined total was less than half of what one marquee free agent makes. And yet, once again Huntington spent even his small rationing poorly. These players finished almost 2 wins worse than replacement level players, and not a single addition even finished at the level of a replacement player. More shocking still, every single free agent acquisition retired after the 2009 season! Clearly, these were players collecting their final paychecks as Major Leaguers.
C Chris Snyder $5.250MM -0.4 WAR
2B Aki Iwamura $4.850MM -1.7 WAR (retired after 2010 [OAK])
SP Chan Ho Park $1.200MM 0.2 WAR (retired after 2010)
OF Ryan Church $1.150MM -0.6 WAR (retired after 2010 [ARI])
SS Bobby Crosby $1.000MM -1.2 WAR (retired after 2010 [ARI])
Cumulative spent in 2010: $13,450,000
Cumulative WAR of 2010: -3.7
% of free agent additions that retired after the 2010 season: 80%
Overall: The payroll figure seems higher than it was, as Chris Snyder was acquired from the Arizona Diamonbacks mid-season, in a trade that sent the equally-fungible-but-less-expensive Ryan Church and Bobby Crosby out West. The Pirates also claimed Chan Ho Park after he was released by the Yankees, so they were not responsible for his entire contract either. Huntington was given around $8MM to spend this offseason, highlighted by the terrible signing of Aki Iwamura, who recorded a terrible -1.7 WAR before the Pirates begrudgingly turned over the 2B reigns to Neil Walker, who quickly became a core member of the team. A -3.7 WAR shows that Huntington’s free agent acquisitions were a significant detriment to the team- and nearly all of them retired after 2009, completing an astounding 2-year period that saw 8 of 9 acquisitions hang it up after collecting their last MLB paychecks in Pittsburgh.
C Chris Snyder $6.250MM 0.7 WAR
1B Lyle Overbay $5.000MM -0.7 WAR
SP Kevin Correia $4.000MM -0.2 WAR
OF Matt Diaz $2.125MM -0.7 WAR
Cumulative spent in 2011: $17,375,000
Cumulative WAR of 2011: -0.9
% of free agent additions that retired after the 2011 season: 0%
Overall: For the first time since being hired 4 years prior, GM Huntington was significant financial leeway by owner Bob Nutting to make meaningful additions to what the Pirates hoped would be a competitive team. And yet over $17,000,000 and 162 games later, the WAR of the 2011 free agent additions was -0.9, again worse than the Pirates simply putting the same money towards the draft and Latin America, and promoting league minimum players from within. For comparison, the Pirates should have been able to accrue a WAR of at least 3.0, or three $5MM players at 1.0 WAR each.
We also clearly see the “quantity over quality” approach that has so damned the Pirates over the past two decades. It would behoove the team to place these resources towards 1-2 impact players, as opposed to 4-5 below average ones. For example, C Victor Martinez was signed in the same offseason by Detroit at $12,500,000 per year. That’s nearly $5MM less than Huntington’s group, and Martinez alone posted a 2.9 WAR in 2011.
SP A.J. Burnett $16.500MM 1.9 WAR
SP Wandy Rodriguez $10.500 0.5 WAR
SS Clint Barmes $5.500MM 1.2 WAR
SP Erik Bedard $4.500MM -0.8 WAR
C Rod Barajas $4.000MM -1.0 WAR
SP Kevin Correia $4.000MM -0.1 WAR
3B Casey McGehee $2.538MM 0.3 WAR
Cumulative spent in 2012: $47,538,000
Cumulative WAR of 2012: 2.0
% of free agent additions that retired after the 2012 season: 0%
Overall: The mid-season acquisition of SP A.J. Burnett from the Yankees was one of Huntington’s best, though it (and the deadline acquisition of SP Wandy Rodriguez) distorts both the dollar figures and WAR of the class on the whole, especially considering New York picked up much of Burnett’s 2011 contract as part of the trade. Counting Burnett, the Pirates and Huntington finally had a group of aquisitions posting a positive WAR, which is clearly a step in the right direction. But a 2.0 WAR total is disproportionately low considering the dollar figure outlay ($5MM per 1.0 WAR = 9 wins above replacement player for a $45MM total). Further, while SS Clint Barmes contributed with a 1.2 WAR himself, he was also one of the worst hitters in baseball in 2011, finishing with a .593 OPS and 66 OPS+.
SP A.J. Burnett $16.500MM
SP Wandy Rodriguez $10.500MM
C Russell Martin $7.500MM
SP Francisco Liriano $5.500MM* (if all performance and appearance bonuses are met)
SS Clint Barmes $5.500MM
SP Jeff Karstens $3.100MM* (re-signed as a free agent)
Cumulative spent in 2013: $48,600,000
Overall: It’s highly unlikely that this group comes close to the 8.0-9.0 WAR that an outlay of $45,000,000 should result in on average. Burnett posted the best WAR of the group in 2012, though at age 36, another 1.9 campaign is unlikely. However, any decline should be countered by an improvement from rotationmate Wandy Rodriguez, who had a 2-year year average of 2.3 WAR prior to being traded to the Pirates. Russell Martin should contribute around a 1.5 WAR from behind the plate, which would be a huge upgrade over former WAR black hole C Rod Barajas. Still, for the second season in a row, it appears that owner Bob Nutting is finally making an effort to field a competitive payroll, yet Huntington spreads it over such a large group of players that the Pirates are still without a young, impact free agent addition that could significantly bolster the club for years to come.
In summary, the Pirates should focus more on targeting 1-2 young, significant upgrades to longer-term deals every few offseasons, as opposed to pursuing multiple aging, declining veterans on 1-2 year deals every offseason. If meaningful free agent targets aren’t available, the money should be rolled into signing talent out of Latin America, and diversifying the scouting department. Under Huntington, the Pirates’ acquisitions have tallied $131,413,000 over 5 seasons (again in fairness, a small amount was paid by other teams), and have a -4.6 WAR to show for it. For a team that still struggles to post even league average payrolls, that’s an abysmal waste of limited resources.
Thanks for reading.