It's two days before Christmas, and the mall is packed. Shoppers hurry from one store to the next, buying last-minute gifts and trying to stay out of each other's way. But in the middle of a bustling concourse, a child stands pouting, glued to his spot.
"It's time to go," his parents say, but the child doesn't move.
"Let's go," his parents shout, but the child continues pouting.
"Now," his parents yell, and finally the child does move, following his mother and father, but slowly, way too slowly, his head cast toward the floor.
Here are the Pirates' payrolls for the past two seasons. These are total payrolls, which should be both larger and more accurate than the widely circulated Opening Day payroll figures. The numbers below include money spent on in-season acquisitions, and they include almost $12 million per team for things like pension benefits and insurance, which aren't usually included in payroll calculations.
The Pirates increased their payroll in 2014, but actually declined relative to league average, as the average team payroll increased by about $10 million.
There's a lot about 2015 payroll we don't know yet, and won't know until the season ends. Every indication, though, is that the Bucs' payroll will be higher than it's ever been. Pirates Prospects projects that the 2015 payroll will be $90.1 million, including estimates for arbitration salaries. But that doesn't include Jung-Ho Kang or anyone else the Pirates might add during this winter or during the season, and it also doesn't include the extra $12 million in the figures above. Whatever the Pirates end up paying will be significantly more than usual.
The 2015 total payroll is impossible to project at this point, so I won't try. The Opening Day payroll (which also doesn't include that extra $12 million) looks like it will be something like $95 million, assuming they sign Kang but don't sign anyone else. (That figure looks low compared to the Pirates Prospects projection because that projection includes salaries for a variety of players on the 40-man who won't be on the Bucs' Opening Day roster.)
That's great, and the clearest manifestation of that newfound budgetary freedom was the re-signing of Francisco Liriano to a contract more than twice the size of the Pirates' previous largest-ever free agent contract. But it isn't enough. The Pirates' payroll last year was their highest ever, and it probably would have been even higher if they had spent all the money they had budgeted -- they tried to sign James Loney and Josh Johnson but failed. Even if they had, though, their payroll still wouldn't have risen out of the bottom third of all MLB teams, or gotten anywhere near league average.
Barring a major turnaround, the same figures to be true again this year. Assuming the Pirates do sign Kang but don't sign anyone else, the Pirates' Opening Day payroll (which, again, is different from the total payroll figures above) will be something like $95 million. (I use the Opening Day figure here because there's no way to know at this point what the final 2015 payroll will be.) I get that the total of all Opening Day payrolls last year was around $3.45 billion, which means that the average Opening Day payroll was around $115 million. That figure is unbalanced somewhat by the big spenders at the top, but even the No. 15 team (the Orioles) was at $107 million. The Pirates' $95 million falls way short, and that assumes Opening Day payrolls will stay the same in 2015, which they won't. If we assume a total increase of around 7 percent, which is probably conservative, the average Opening Day payroll will be about $123 million.
I don't expect the Pirates to open every season with an Opening Day payroll near league average. The Bucs' situation probably can't sustain that. But even in an offseason that has felt like a wild spending spree by the Pirates' standards, they're still way behind, and we need to continue to hold their feet to the fire. No one outside the industry has access to the Pirates' books, and it's possible that the Bucs simply aren't able to spend at the level we'd like, but it would be nice if the Bucs were able to spend somewhere near the MLB average in seasons in which they figure to be competitive.
Also, we should resist the urge (to which I'm sure I've succumbed) to pat the Pirates on the back for setting new payroll records every season. That represents bare-minimum effort on their part, because payrolls continue to increase throughout the game, which is swimming in money right now. As far as I can tell, the Pirates set a new payroll record last season while finishing 28th in total payroll, which says very clearly that spending more than they used to isn't going to cut it. The Bucs' payrolls are increasing, but they're increasing too slowly. The kid's poor parents aren't ever going to get back to the car.
Maybe the Pirates have plans to continue spending this offseason. Maybe they'll keep spending to upgrade during the year. These figures aren't set in stone, and if they move anywhere, it will be up. But I'm noting them here anyway, because I found myself wanting to feel giddy about the Liriano signing and the Kang bid, and I had to remind myself that we should expect the Pirates to spend competitively in years when they figure to play competitively, and that still isn't happening.
The Pirates have quietly had a high functioning front office and coaching staff in recent years, and they've wrung every drop out of many of their players. As a fan and blogger, I love that, and it's fantastic to see the Pirates sign Russell Martin for $17 million and have him be one of the league's best players, or to see them snag Mark Melancon for pennies on the dollar and watch him emerge as a top closer. The Pirates are, without a doubt, a smart team, and if I have to choose between smart and rich, I choose smart. But there is a meaningful correlation between spending and winning, and the price of MLB talent increases every year. The Liriano contract is a step in the right direction for the Pirates, but it's a small, slow one as other shoppers move decisively around them.
UPDATE 2:42pm: In the comments, there have been a number of requests for specific ideas on how the Pirates should spend. Honestly, I didn't think that was necessary when I wrote this -- the Pirates entered the offseason with obvious needs in their rotation, and there was a ton of pitching on the free agent market. There are lots of ways for a creative GM with money to spend to find ways to improve his team. Brandon McCarthy in addition to Liriano would have been a solid addition to the Pirates' rotation, and Jose Abreu last offseason would have been another excellent addition that clearly would have fit their needs. There is some risk in taking on big multi-year contracts for those players, but the Pirates should be willing to embrace some risk to get better, especially when the downside is that they don't get much in the last couple years of those contracts and the remainder of their payroll ends up being similar (with adjustments for inflation) to their current payroll anyway.