What follows is a list. Each line is where the Pittsburgh Pirates ranked in terms of Major League payroll, among the 30 teams.
The list begins with the year Bob Nutting took over as principal owner.
2007 – 27th
2008 – 27th
2009 – 28th
2010 – 30th
2011 – 28th
2012 – 26th
2013 – 27th
2014 – 27th
2015 – 25th
2016 – 21st
2017 – 23rd
More spending does not automatically equal more wins. However, in conducting the most rigorous and deepest analysis I have seen on the subject, Noah Davis and Michael Lopez found that “more money generally means more wins.”
The truly frustrating part? The Pirates were set up for more money to directly equal more wins.
In my debut of a (short-lived) sports analytics column for Pittsburgh Magazine in March 2015, I pointed out that the Pirates were in the perfect spot to spend. They had reached the playoffs the previous two seasons, seen attendance and revenue rise, and most importantly, saved enough money through their re-building process to make that splash.
It didn’t happen.
Those 2015 Pirates were two wins short of taking the division. In 2014, the Bucs were also two wins short of the division title. In 2013, three wins short.
All of those turned out to be years where a little bit of spending — on an extra pitcher, on an extra bat — would have had an outsized impact on where the team landed in October.
It’s what allowed the Cubs to jump from $89 million to $167 million in two years.
It’s what allowed the Astros to methodically work their way from $24 million to $45 million to $69 million to $97 million to $127 million.
One other thing money allows you to do: make mistakes. You whiff on a six-figure contract? Eh. There’s more cash where that came from.
The Pirates don’t live in that world. And while I have grievances to air with Neal Huntington, in the grand scheme his bankroll is tighter than that of almost all of his fellow GMs.
And so, you get risk aversion.
You need young, cost-controlled players to compete. When a David Price or a Giancarlo Stanton hits the trade market, you can’t feel confident dealing multiple top prospects for him. They’re your currency.
You need that dreaded “financial flexibility.” Free agency? Pfft. The biggest free-agent contract your owner ever signed was 3 years, $39 million.
You get a No. 1 pick, and draft a state-of-the-art workhorse pitcher like Gerrit Cole. But you see his agent is Scott Boras. A long-term extension is a fairy tale.
You know how beloved Andrew McCutchen is, from the die-hards to the go-once-a-year-with-work-friends crowd. But on your budget, are you really going to spend on his age-32 season, his age-33 season, and so on?
Winning frugally? It can be done. But not for long. Not consistently. Not at a level that can realistically compete with the teams that, every year, are spending $50 million more than you. $70 million more. In the Dodgers’ case, $140 million more.
As for me, I’m on a word count budget. Gotta keep it under 500. Seems fitting.