The Pirates are one team that can get better, on a budget, this winter
Based on their finances the Pirates can spend about $18 million on free agents
A mediocre starter such as Jason Marquis or Doug Davis wouldn't help much
Defense -- at the corners and at shortstop -- is where Pittsburgh should focus
The Pittsburgh Pirates have some things going for them. They may be one of the two least valuable teams in baseball, they may play in the sport's fifth-smallest market, and they may endure all the woes that come with holding the record for most consecutive losing seasons in a major American sport, but they don't spend a lot, and like all other low-end ball clubs they have the help of rich cousins.
While the exact numbers are the subject of a colorful dispute right now, it's believed that, like several other major league teams, the Pirates -- who we're using here as a case study for how a struggling team can boost its fortunes on this winter's free-agent market -- take in more money from central baseball than they spend on big league players. There are two sources of cash here. One is a fixed amount of money that each team draws from the sport's national broadcast contracts, online revenues and the like; the other is a transfer of money away from wealthy teams through the luxury tax. Baseball zealously guards exact figures, but a conservative estimate from several years ago put the Pirates' income from just these two sources at $50 million to $60 million -- more than their payroll in each of the past two seasons.
More important for the Pirates, though, is that they aren't wasting this money. They owe a hair under $15 million to players under contract for 2010, none making even $5 million. They also have several arbitration cases coming up, which in a worst-case scenario might end up costing them $10 million. Add in another $7 million or so to pay the minimum salary for each remaining roster spot and that leaves them, if they hold their Opening Day payroll where it has been for the last two years, with about $18 million to spend.
A team with that much available isn't all that bad off. Free agents are relatively cheap these days. Over the last few years more teams have begun applying the sort of basic cost-benefit analysis to acquisitions that your dry cleaner uses to decide whether or not to buy fancy new equipment; the recession also has teams unwilling to spend, and there are even some not entirely insane claims of quasi-collusion from agents and the players' union. All of this has driven player prices down. At this point, in fact, one wonders if the smart play for teams like the Pirates might not be to go out and get some of those middling veterans that they've been counseled to avoid for many years.
Take as a given that the Pirates can't and won't contend next year, and that having traded off basically all their veterans of any value over the last year and a half, the best they can do is set themselves up to avoid an 18th straight losing season -- if things break well for them. Signing pitchers is probably out; even a mediocre starter such as Jason Marquis or Doug Davis would chew up half their available money without meaningfully improving the team. What then, to do?
The first order of business is to evaluate how good the team is. Pittsburgh's pitching is pretty dire. According to the Bill James Handbook, the rotation projects to pitch 779 innings with a 4.46 ERA. Two points here: One is that this implies that the bullpen would need to pitch about 665 innings of 3.89 ERA baseball for the Pirates just to have average pitching. The other is that if you add Marquis and Davis that number goes down to 499 innings at the same ERA. In other words, the team's pitching problems aren't the kind that can be solved even with more money than they have. What they need to do is protect, develop and get the most out of the young pitchers they have, nearly all of them fly ball pitchers with iffy stuff.
That brings us to their position players. Combining offensive projections from Baseball Projection and career defensive numbers from Fangraphs, both conveniently denominated in runs above or below average per 150 games, the Pirates' lineup at present rates out at about five runs below average at the plate and 25 runs below average in the field. Those are miserable numbers, but they're also a lot more easily addressed than the team's pitching woes.
Take shortstop, where the Pirates' nominal starter is Ronny Cedeno, who projects to be worth 18 runs below average with the bat and has, in his career, been worth six runs below average with the glove at shortstop per 150 games. Replace him with free agent Adam Everett, an even more miserable hitter but a fantastic defender, and the Pirates improve by between 10 and 15 runs per 150 games -- and Everett made just $1 million last year.
Similarly, the Pirates plan to run Lastings Milledge out in an outfield corner, seemingly because he was once a prospect. Milledge projects at two runs below average as a hitter, and his stumbling outfield play has been worth 10 below average in his career. Cheap defense-first players such as Austin Kearns and Joey Gathright wouldn't cost much more than Everett, and they, too, would represent a potential improvement of 10 to 15 runs.
Finally, at third the Pirates will play Andy LaRoche, a former top prospect with the Dodgers who projects as a basically dead-average player with slightly above-average defense this year. He isn't a problem, but he may represent a solution. The Pirates don't have a solid first baseman; LaRoche, were he moved there, would likely be a significant asset defensively, enough to carry an average bat given the needs of the team. That would open up third base for free agent Adrian Beltre, a tremendously underrated player who has been worth about 14 runs per 150 games above average in his career and who will likely come relatively cheap this winter, given how little more superficially impressive players such as Bobby Abreu have been signing for recently.
Put all that together and the Pirates would project at about minus-25 runs offensively -- even worse than the present iteration -- but at about plus-40 defensively, enough to rate in the top five teams in baseball. In all such a series of signings would represent a positive swing of four or five wins, leave enough left over to sign a starter or a couple of cheap relievers, and give the team's dodgy young pitchers their best possible chance to succeed. And it would do all this without taking serious playing time away from any young player that the team needs to develop (even Milledge could be assured plenty of playing time as part of an outfield rotation), costing draft picks or assuming any dead weight in long-term contracts.
The point here isn't that the Pirates need to do this or that. Previous regimes made far too much of a botch of the draft and player development for there to be any easy answers here, and the team just doesn't have the young pitching or the money to engineer a monumental turnaround the way teams such as Tampa Bay, Seattle and Texas have in recent years. You also have to laud a commitment to play the likes of Milledge and LaRoche if only to see what they have.
Still, even before looking at the coming flood of non-tendered veterans, it's clear that there's plenty of cheap help on the market for any team that wants it, help cheap enough even for the Pirates. And if that's so, there's no team that can't meaningfully help itself this winter. Baseball may not have a level playing field, but there's little excuse for any team not to enter next spring more respectable than it is now.
Tim Marchman lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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