Over the past several years, one of the key topics for Pirates fans has been whether the Bucs will start to raise the payroll. Publicly, the Bucs' front office has consistently linked substantial payroll raises (perhaps to the $70 million range) to an increase in attendance, which in turn would be caused by excitement about the team.
We've reached the point where we've got to start talking about this, haven't we? The Pirates are 40-38, and the buzz about them in town is far louder than it typically is this time of year.
The Bucs are still 14th out of 16 National League teams in attendance. It's unclear how many people they'll draw if they hover around .500 or better the rest of the season, but it might be enough to get them to, say, 11th or so, past Houston, San Diego and maybe Arizona. The Bucs are averaging about 2500 more ticket sales per game in 2011 than they did in 2010, and that 2011 figure currently includes a disproportionate number of games that were marred by awful spring weather. Attendance trailed off at the end of last season, but that's obviously less likely to happen in 2011 if the team remains competitive, particularly if the NFL lockout continues.
So, assuming a modest increase in attendance and a .500 team, should the Pirates raise the payroll to the $70 million range in 2012? I know this is what fans would like to happen, but keep in mind that the financial records leaked last year indicated that the Pirates just don't have a lot of money, so a $70 million payroll might be a gamble on their part. If they raise the payroll, can they maintain their winning ways, thus continuing to get fans to come out to the park?
I don't yet have any definitive answers to these questions, but I think we should start discussing them. The Pirates currently have a winning record, and they aren't really getting freakishly unlikely performances from any of their top players, except Jeff Karstens and Paul Maholm. Andrew McCutchen has gotten better, but that's because he's 24 and a likely future superstar. Charlie Morton's ERA is currently right in line with his xFIP, so his performance this year has been completely legitimate.
Meanwhile, the Pirates have also gotten very poor performances from several players, and there's reason to hope that they can at least tread water next year simply by getting improvements from a few spots, even if guys like Maholm (if he's even still in Pittsburgh) and Karstens take steps back. For example, Lyle Overbay is awful, and he won't be back. Pedro Alvarez was terrible before he got hurt; if he's even average next year, the Pirates would get a huge boost. In addition, the Bucs won't have to let go of anyone of value this offseason.
So could the Pirates continue to play competitive baseball next year? It's too early to say for sure, but at this point, I don't see why not. It would be easier to feel certain about it if the Bucs' pitchers in the high minors had had better years so far - if Rudy Owens had pitched well, for example, we might feel a little more certain that the Bucs would be able to sustain their competitive ways even if a major-league starting pitcher or two struggled. But I think the chances of the Pirates playing .500 baseball next year are at least decent.
The Bucs had an opening-day payroll of about $42 million this year. Guys like Joel Hanrahan, Karstens, Morton, Garrett Jones and others will head to arbitration in the offseason and the Bucs will also have to decide whether to exercise Paul Maholm's $9.75 million option, but they'll also have $16.5 million worth of Overbay, Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder coming off the books. So the potential is there for the Pirates to be real players in the 2011-2012 free agent market if they want to.
UPDATE: A couple folks have mentioned in the comments that $70 million will actually be pretty tricky to get to next year, given the number of contracts already coming off the books and the number of team-controlled or first-year-arbitration players the Pirates will have. That's probably true. I mentioned the $70 million figure because it has come up repeatedly in articles like this one, but the Pirates will have to go seriously nuts to make that happen next year. A more likely path, if the Bucs continue to perform well, is that they bump up payroll next year but not to $70 million, then finally get to $70 million a couple years from now, when guys like McCutchen and Neil Walker will need to be paid a bunch more.