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On Russell Martin and the Pirates: Is an unbalanced payroll inherently bad?

Mitchell Leff

Travis Sawchik illustrates the complexities of the Pirates' Russell Martin dilemma. Sawchik is right -- the #PayTheMan commentary about Martin oversimplifies a very difficult decision. Sawchik mentions a lot of the key points in the debate, and I agree with a lot of them on both sides. The Bucs will be in a tough spot if they don't sign Martin. But they might be getting into an even tougher spot if they do. Here's probably the one sentence in the article I dislike, though, and apologies in advance if the 600-word rebuttal that follows seems over the top.

Problem is few playoff teams and no World Series team since 1985 has ever committed 19 percent of payroll – or greater – to one player.

This oft-repeated factoid doesn't mean much in itself. First, it takes a lot of luck to win playoff series, and there isn't much reason for there to be a much stronger correlation between payroll distribution and World Series wins as there is between payroll distribution and making the playoffs. Or, even better, just winning 90-plus games. So by only looking at World Series winners, you're cutting a large sample of good teams (90-plus winners, say) down to a much smaller one for mostly arbitrary reasons. Sawchik says he's going to discuss this issue in more detail Sunday. When he does, I hope he focuses more on the "few playoff teams" part rather than the "no World Series team" part.

The second and more important point is ... well, okay, few playoff teams commit 19 percent or more of their payroll to one player. What percent of playoff teams come from the bottom five teams in total payroll? When teams set their own payroll and can sometimes control young superstars for mere fractions of what they're worth, there's nothing impossible about winning with a heavily unbalanced roster.

In fact, running afoul of this 19-percent rule might indicate that you've got a well run team on your hands. For example, let's say your farm system has done an amazing job churning out young talent, and in the last couple years, a bunch of it has arrived at once. You've got three 6-WAR superstars who are still in their zero-to-three years. You also have several good young pitchers and a cheap, nasty bullpen. Thanks to terrific drafting and development, you've got an 85-win core in place for just $40 million, and now you've got two holes left to fill and you're about to head out onto the free agent market.

But wait! Your team only costs $40 million. If you've got a hole at second base, you can't pay more than $9.5 million to fill it, or else that player will take up more than 19 percent of your payroll, and no World Series team since 1985 has committed more than 19 percent of its payroll to one player.

See the problem? When great players are often paid far less than they're worth (and, fortunately for teams like the Pirates, they often are), the "Don't put too many eggs in one basket" rule doesn't apply.

A team's payroll can be high or low for many reasons. A team that heads into the offseason with a low payroll (and thus a low 19-percent threshold) might simply have a low payroll primarily because it's found a lot of good, cheap talent. A team like the Phillies might have a very high 19-percent threshold because it's filled with expensive veterans. Every situation is unique. There's no reason why a team that has cheap young superstars, and therefore a low payroll, shouldn't feel like it can shop for good free agents. Taking a balanced approach to the free agent market, the way the Red Sox, for example, did before the 2013 season, can certainly work. But an unbalanced approach could also clearly work for a team with a low payroll, a lot of controllable talent and few gaping holes.

And there's no reason a team with an artificially low payroll should be excused for failing to spend purely because a good free agent would cost 20 percent of the payroll. If signing Russell Martin would take 20 percent of your payroll, perhaps it's your payroll, which you set yourself, that's the problem. A team's payroll isn't a fixed number. Within certain limits, it can be as high or low as a team wants, or can afford. The 19-percent thing lets the Pirates off the hook too easily.

Anyway, apologies if this was nitpicky, and again, I thought Travis' piece was great overall.

-P- MLBTR's Zach Links predicts Edinson Volquez will get a two-year, $18 million contract this offseason, which sounds reasonable. I think that's too much for the Pirates to pay unless the rest of the free agent market somehow dries up on them. If they really can fix pitchers, they should be looking for the next Edinson Volquez and focusing on other positions.