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Ask BD: Whither the Pirates’ payroll

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MLB: Atlanta Braves at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

First installment:

Why are the Pirates trying to cut payroll when . . .
they are inline for a $45M influx in revenue from BAMTech? And while attendance figures are down for them, their revenue sharing amount will increase based on the growing dollars that the MLB is bringing in. Two different reports show the Pirates with a revenue of approximately $260M in 2016, and as noted, that number will grow when the 2017 numbers get crunched. At what point do Pirate fans start to demand, via media and other avenues, an accounting for the dollars from Nutting and company?

— Long John Silver

Taking this in parts . . . .

— We don’t know that the Pirates are cutting payroll, although the sharply dropping attendance could lead to that. Then again, attendance dropped by a quarter of a million from 2015 to 2016, yet the final payroll, according to Cot’s, rose from $95.9M to $109.7M. I don’t like any of the other sources for payroll much because Cot’s gives end-of-season figures for the full 40-man roster, while most or all of the other sources (except for Pirates Prospects) just give opening day figures and often don’t include the full roster. Unfortunately, Cot’s doesn’t have a figure for 2017 yet, although it’s safe to assume that it’s below the 2016 figure. Pirates Prospects (sub. req’d) has $99.2M.

P2 projects the 2018 opening day payroll at $99.4M. That includes arbitration estimates and excludes Jung-Ho Kang. Obviously, any addition of veteran player(s) would increase that figure. So unless the Pirates dump salary, they’re already above 2017, although below 2016. I’m not expecting an overly active off-season, but I’ll be mildly surprised if they don’t make some modest additions along the lines of Daniel Hudson, not that I’m looking forward to such moves. So the 2018 payroll could still exceed 2016, although not likely by much. If they’re going to cut payroll, we’ll probably find out soon because salary-dumping moves (which in the Pirates’ case will almost certainly involve Josh Harrison) don’t generally seem to happen late in the off-season. Of course, the Pirates also could cut payroll during the season. (This is why I don’t like opening day payroll figures: They tell you nothing about the team’s planning for in-season moves. The real payroll is what the team is prepared to shell out based on in-season developments.)

— I don’t pretend to know what difference an added $45M in revenue would make. As Thunder pointed out in the comments, though, it appears to be a one-time shot of revenue, and it’s coming at a time when attendance is dropping and may continue to do so, possibly a lot, for several more years. That’s obviously not going to help the Pirates sign anybody to a big, long-term deal. More revenue should mean a higher payroll, something Frank Coonelly has acknowledged many times. In the larger scheme of things, though, added revenue doesn’t by itself increase the team’s competitiveness when everybody else gets the same addition.

— I can’t claim I’ve ever understood the notion that things will get better if enough fans “call the team out” over its spending. By far and away the single, largest topic of discussion among Pirate fans online ever since there was such a thing as online has been complaints about the team’s payroll, and that includes demands that ownership “open the books.” The only way the payroll-related complaints and demands could get any louder is if the team gets a bunch more fans, which isn’t exactly the trend right now. The complaints and demands have never made the slightest difference in the team’s financial practices and never will, no matter who owns the team.

The best suggestion I can make for anybody who feels determined to do something is to vote with your wallet. That won’t make any immediate difference, either, but in the longer term the falling revenue may help motivate the front office and ownership to confront the reality of the team’s situation. Specifically, they need to address the reality that the current roster doesn’t have anywhere near enough talent to contend and that doing nothing more than adding replacement-level middle relievers and utility players is the worst possible course of action. But then, I think they’re going to be forced to confront that issue exactly seven months from now in any event.