The Pirates' payroll ranks 27th out of 30 big-league teams, according to the Associated Press. There are a ton of variables that go into determining a team's payroll, and the lowest-payroll team, Houston, is already complaining that the AP's numbers are "estimates" and therefore not quite right.
Point taken. But the gist of these numbers is clear. In a season in which the Pirates are supposed to be competing, their payroll (at around $78 million) ranks below that of every team except the Astros, Marlins and Rays. That's two rebuilding teams and a team with no fans. The Pirates' payroll is $25 million behind Milwaukee and $34 million behind Cincinnati.
(UPDATE: Battlingbucs points out that the Brewers and Reds take in far more in gate receipts than the Pirates, in part because their average ticket prices are much higher. For example, the average Pirates ticket price was $16.11 in 2013. For the Brewers, it was $24.95. That makes such a big difference that it's tough to compare the two franchises in the way I casually did. I hadn't realized the disparity was so great.)
Now, obviously, payroll isn't everything, and the Pirates probably had access to funds this offseason that they didn't spend. Perhaps they'll be able to spend on an in-season acquisition, which could bump their end-of-season payroll up a few spots. But the evidence suggests that the amount of money the Pirates had to spend was very limited, which is why Edinson Volquez is now in the Pirates' rotation instead of A.J. Burnett. I defended the Pirates' extremely low payrolls for years because they weren't positioned to contend. Now is different. There have been any number of excuses as to why the Pirates didn't spend on Player X or Player Y this winter, but I've yet to see a good excuse for not spending on a reasonable one-year deal for a pitcher who was one of the best in the National League last season.
The Pirates made admirable commitments in the past few years before this one -- they spent lavishly on the draft in 2011, took on salary in the Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez trades in 2012, and then added an excellent catcher in Russell Martin. They ended up in the playoffs last year partially as a result of those commitments, and they probably still haven't gotten enough credit for them. But it's hard not to wonder where that commitment was this offseason. Maybe the Bucs will make it back to the playoffs despite themselves. But it's going to be frustrating if they don't, especially if they come up just short.