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The Pirates' Major-League Payroll: Not Worth Parsing

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Question of the day: Why is there so much focus on the Pirates' payroll? That is, why are fans so concerned about the exact number of dollars the Pirates will spend on major-league players in any given year?

Here are the Opening-Day payrolls for the past seven seasons, courtesy of Cot's Contracts.

2011: $ 42,047,000

2010: $ 39,068,000

2009: $ 48,693,000

2008: $ 48,689,783

2007: $ 38,537,823

2006: $ 46,717,750

2005: $ 38,133,000

I'd argue that there's only one meaningful trend to be found here, and it's this: the Pirates tend to have Opening Day payrolls around $40-45 million. Those are low numbers that have tended to correspond pretty well to the amount of talent the Pirates have had available to them.

Since the Aramis Ramirez debacle in 2003, there hasn't been a whole lot of salary-dumping in the pejorative way that fans often mean when they use the term "salary-dumping." The Bucs really never do that anymore because ... well, they just don't have very many good players who ought to be kept. They don't have enough good players, period, and by the time the few good ones get expensive, it usually makes good baseball sense for the Pirates to deal them for youngsters.

Now, true, there have been players the Pirates have dropped so that the Pirates didn't have to pay their salaries anymore, because the Bucs didn't believe those players were worth their salaries. If you want to call that "salary-dumping," that's fine. But if that's what the Pirates are doing, I don't have a problem with it, at least not in theory.

If you ask a certain type of Pirates fan to name a recent example of the Pirates dumping salary, their best possible response is probably Jose Bautista. Now, in hindsight, letting Bautista go was a mistake. And even at the time, it didn't look like the Pirates were getting much in return for him. But I think the key here was that the Pirates thought they were giving up Bautista because he wasn't worth his salary, and because they had a young third baseman they liked better in Andy LaRoche. (Terrible call in hindsight, I know, but that thought process at least sort of made sense back then.) It wasn't as if salary needed to be cleared off the books. If the Pirates genuinely didn't think Jose Bautista was worth his salary, then the trade wasn't a salary dump any more than the recent non-tender of Ross Ohlendorf was a salary dump. I haven't heard anyone complaining that the Pirates are cheap because they didn't offer Ross Ohlendorf a contract. Ohlendorf's likely salary exceeded his likely on-field value to the team, so the Pirates dropped him. I don't think anyone really has a problem with that.

The recent losses of Paul Maholm and Ronny Cedeno might be another example. I didn't agree with either of those decisions at the time, but I think the Pirates' decision to dump those players had to do with the team thinking those players weren't worth the prices of their 2012 options, or maybe that they could get better prices for players of similar or greater value in the free agent market. They could pretty reasonably argue they've been proven right on that last point, since they were able to get Erik Bedard and Clint Barmes for about what they would have paid Maholm and Cedeno.

The Opening Day payrolls did drop between 2009 and 2010, due to the trades of Jack Wilson, Ian Snell, Freddy Sanchez and so on during the 2009 season. But these were (again, whatever you might think of them) primarily baseball trades, in which the Pirates shipped out older players in favor of younger ones in order to increase their chances of contending in the future. As WTM likes to say, the fact that most of the players the Bucs traded in 2008 and 2009 quickly ceased to be useful suggests that the Pirates were right to trade them at that time. It's certainly fair to argue about whether they got enough for them, but the point here is that the Bucs weren't trading these players purely to dump payroll.

This is all fairly knotty, semantic-y stuff. But my point here is that the relationship between the Pirates' payroll and the Pirates' baseball goals has not changed in almost a decade. I'm not saying this to defend the Bucs (the existing pattern is plenty depressing on its own), just pointing out that all the tooth-gnashing over payroll that we as fans do simply isn't worth it. The key issue isn't really the payroll. It's the amount of talent the Pirates have.

Here's what happens in almost every season: the Pirates have a certain number of league-minimum players, and a certain number of guys they think are worth taking to arbitration. They pay those guys. Then, they bring in a bunch of veterans (of varying quality, but mostly mediocre or outright bad) via free agency or trade, and they get the Opening Day payroll to something like $40 million or maybe $50 million. Then the trade deadline comes, and they make a baseball decision to either trade for veterans in order to compete (2011) or trade older players in order to maximize their future value (every other year). The only year since 2005 or so that doesn't really fit this pattern is in 2007, when Dave Littlefield really went bonkers and traded for Matt Morris. Then they do it again.

I mention all this because, at this time of year and others, there's a strong temptation to parse some quote from Frank Coonelly or Bob Nutting to try to figure out whether the Pirates will spend more this year than last. But there hasn't been a meaningful change in the Pirates' payroll for a very long time. Until there is - until there's a case of the Pirates getting a minimal trade return back for an expensive player with significant trade value, say, or a case of the Pirates taking on a significant contract that puts them in a different payroll bracket - there isn't much there to parse.

I've been guilty of plenty of parsing myself, particularly in weeks when there wasn't much going on. But the fact is that the Pirates' major-league payrolls have been very stable since 2004. (Their spending in the draft has risen considerably, and they've rightly received plenty of praise for that, but that's a different issue.) The major-league payroll might go up or down $5 million or $10 million here and there, but that doesn't make much difference. The Pirates aren't the Marlins. Until there's a radical swing in the payroll, worrying too much about a number is a waste of time. And a radical swing is unlikely until the Bucs pull themselves together well enough to establish a playoff-caliber core of young players. Until then, it'll probably be really low. If you want to criticize for that, go for it. It's safe. You don't even have to pay attention, because it's probably going to stay that way for a while.