Baseball Prospectus has an interesting suggestion about what the Royals should do this offseason:
[But i]f all that that $20 million buys you is a 14-win increase to 70 victories, has the franchise profited from the gesture?...
Perhaps a better approach would be to tell the fans, "We're going to play it cheap this winter, but in 2007, we're going to spend some real money--$70 or $80 million--and try to buy ourselves a pennant. So it's going to be a depressing summer, but be sure to pick up your season tickets anyway; that way you'll have priority for playoff seats in '07."
This would be a great idea for the Pirates who, like the Royals, have announced plans to significantly raise payroll this offseason. Both teams have picked a terrible time to raise payroll: The free agent market is quite thin, and the contracts that have already been signed suggest that it's going to be crazy. (Hideki Matsui got $52 million, B.J. Ryan got $47 million, Bobby Howry got $12 million, Scott Eyre got $11 million, Neifi Perez got $5 million, and so on... heck, Marlon Anderson got a two-year contract.) Remember when the Pirates got Reggie Sanders, Matt Stairs, Kenny Lofton and Jeff Suppan in the same offseason, all for less than $5 million? That was one extreme. This is the other.
In addition, the Pirates control the rights to all their key players (Jason Bay, Oliver Perez, Zach Duke, Jose Castillo, Mike Gonzalez and so on) in 2007, and there's no reason to think that those players will be worse in 2007 than in 2006.
I think it's time for the ship to change course. Raising payroll could well turn out to be a very bad idea - this market, with this GM and this ownership, is how you wind up with Randall Simon and Chris Stynes if the GM suddenly gets cold feet and gets thrifty, or Pat Meares and Derek Bell if he doesn't. Rather, the Pirates could hold on to their money, make trades (preferably involving Kip Wells, Mark Redman and Craig Wilson, who all have value and who the Pirates don't control in '07) for players who might help in '07, and raise the payroll to $70 million or so that year, when nearly all their good young players should be in their primes. The Pirates could add a bat in a trade this year, add one or two more in free agency next year, and potentially make the playoffs in '07.
There are any number of reasons to doubt the Pirates would do this - they're hosting the All-Star game in 2006, remember, and we don't even know who the owners will be in 2007. But this plan would probably give them their best possible chance of contending this decade.