Pirates general manager repeatedly tells Pirates fans that the wins that count come during the season and that the team will never win the off-season.
The Pirates have proved that statement to be accurate over the past two off-seasons. Last year Pittsburgh was the only team in the majors who did not sign any free agent at all.
And for a team that finished fourth in baseball’s toughest division in 2018, the Pirates’ “big name” free agent signing this off-season is outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall, Gregory Polanco’s fill-in while his rehab from injury continues. When Polanco returns, the 30-year-old Chisenhall becomes Pittsburgh’s fourth outfielder.
Pittsburgh also re-signed infielder Jung Ho Kang, who (except for the last weekend of the 2018 season) hasn’t played in the majors in two years, and traded for infielder Erik Gonzalez and two minor-league pitchers. Gonzalez is a lifetime backup shortstop, who is poised to be Pittsburgh’s starting shortstop in 2019.
And just before Christmas, the Bucs swapped Ivan Nova to the White Sox for 19-year-old pitcher Yordi Rosariio and agreed to terms with pitcher Jordon Lyles.
So, what about the other teams in the Pirates’ division?
Well, the Brewers signed catcher Yasmani Grandal for $18.25 million after previously adding Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain and others over the past couple of years.
The Cardinals traded for Paul Goldschmidt and signed Andrew Miller.
Even the Cincinnati Reds picked up players, trading for Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, Matt Kemp and Tanner Rourke.
Meanwhile the Cubs, in last year’s post-season party for the fifth straight time, continued to shell out $200 million for some of the game’s top players.
St. Louis’ payroll projects to about $140 million while Milwaukee and Cincinnati are in the $115 million neighborhood.
The Pittsburgh Pirates?
About $70 million.
Now as any student of the game knows, a team’s win total doesn’t always increase just because the cost of the on-field product grows.
But that student also knows that more money spent does increase a team’s chances to succeed. As a rule, the better players receive better paychecks, so a bigger payroll usually translates into more success.
And if you don’t think the players wearing black and gold don’t get it, you’re wrong.
“I’d love it if we were in on [Bryce] Harper and [Manny] Machado, just like everyone else,” Pirates pitcher and union representative Jameson Taillon said. “That’s just not realistic for us. I don’t want to slight anybody on our team. I think we’ve got a great group of guys.”
Could be, but good guys don’t ensure on-field success either.
At last weekend’s PiratesFest, team president Frank Coonelly said that Pittsburgh’s 2019 smaller payroll reflects a youthful roster that only had two players arbitration eligible. He said that payroll will increase as players play more and enter arbitration years.
Or not, as the Pirates often tend to ship players out a year or two before they reach arbitration rather than pay the price of having a major-league team or, heaven forbid, extend them for a couple of years into free agency eligibility.
“Trust me,” Connelly said, “nobody is pleased, satisfied, or happy with 82 wins last year. It does, in my view, represent a move in the right direction. But it’s not nearly enough. Everybody is committed to doing what we can to put a World Series championship team on the field.”
And if you don’t believe him, ask owner Bob Nutting. Oh, I forgot, he missed PiratesFest because he was out of town on business.
Of course, Coonelly, GM Neil Huntington, and manager Clint Hurdle are going to insist the Pirates can make it to the World Series—as participants, not busying customers. What would you have them say?
The Pirates do have a young crop of players, led by a solid bullpen, valuable only if the starters get the game into the later innings. Most nights they should.
But you’d feel better if they had a bigger payroll, wouldn’t you?
JIM SANKEY is a baseball columnist for The Allied News.