Free agency is tough for the Pirates. Last year, they gave out their biggest free-agent contract ever, a two-year, $17 million deal for Russell Martin. So far this offseason, the Angels have paid about that amount (over three years) for Joe Smith, a setup man. The Giants doubled that amount on Tim Lincecum, a talented pitcher who's struggled in two straight seasons. And the Cardinals tripled that amount on Jhonny Peralta. The Pirates did very, very well on the Russell Martin signing, but in this market, $17 million will get you a good reliever, or half a Tim Lincecum. Meanwhile, the Pirates claim they don't have the budget to pay A.J. Burnett $14.1 million.
This is a bummer. But this makes things even worse:
Word is Peralta wanted to play in St. Louis. Explains why he took about $52M/4 yrs from them while asking $75M/5 of others
Now, you can laugh about the idea that Jhonny Peralta taking $53 million in St. Louis represents some sort of coup for the Cardinals, but this is still an offer they got that, apparently, no one else got.
And then there was the Dan Haren signing tonight. Haren signed with the Dodgers for one year and $10 million. This was probably the most team-friendly deal of the offseason so far. And the reason he did it is that his family lives in Southern California, and he was lonely playing for the Nationals last year. It's likely the Pirates had zero chance of signing Haren this offseason, even if they had wanted to. And then, of course, there's Josh Johnson signing with the Padres because they play near his home in Las Vegas.
Occasionally, every team gets a hometown discount. Jason Grilli gave the Pirates one last offseason, for example. But this is still a big disadvantage for the Pirates compared to the Cardinals, or any team in the Sun Belt or California. Or a marquee team like the Yankees. Neil Walker aside, most players just aren't from Pittsburgh, and so places closer to home and/or places with better year-round weather will always be better free agent options for most players.
In past years, one reason the Pirates had trouble attracting free agents was the perception that they were losers. This year should help change that. But one winning record doesn't change the fact that Pittsburgh isn't in California or Texas or another warm-weather area where American-born baseball players tend to grow up as kids, and gravitate to as adults. And without a large Latino population, Pittsburgh also isn't a great city for Hispanic players, either.
There isn't much anyone can do about this. At some point in their careers, ballplayers deserve to get to choose where they want to play. But it's unfortunate that, in addition to their financial disadvantages, the Pirates also don't play in one of MLB's destination cities.
UPDATE: Coincidentally, John Perrotto has some very similar observations in a piece published within an hour of this one.