After trading away Starling Marte, RosterResource estimates the Pirates will enter the 2020 season with a total payroll of $59 million. The Pirates’ owner Bob Nutting has always been averse to spending, but this is a new low. According to research by The Athletic’s Stephen J. Nesbitt, no team has spent less in free agency than the Pirates. According to Nutting, “the hardest, most challenging and most inefficient marketplace in baseball is and will always be the free-agent market.”
When Nutting says that free agency is inefficient, he doesn’t mean that it’s inefficient in terms of acquiring wins. He simply means that it’s inefficient in terms of dollars spent per WAR. A drafted and developed player can supply wins mostly for free. The rub is that most drafted players never reach the majors.
Free agents might be guaranteed to play in the majors, but they cost some amount of money, and to Nutting, it’s simply not worth it. For instance, the Pirates could spend $5-10 million on Kevin Pillar, and he’d be their first or second-best outfielder depending on how hard regression comes for Bryan Reynolds, but why spend those millions when they can trot out replacement level players for almost nothing. All Kevin Pillar or any other free agent would do is help them win games.
Since Nutting took over, the Pirates have the sixth-worst record in the majors. Only the White Sox, Orioles, Marlins, Padres, and Orioles have been worse. Of the six teams at the bottom, only the Orioles and Padres have spent over the median in free agency ($615 million). At the other end of the spectrum, of the six best teams—the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Cardinals, Angels, and Rays—only the Rays spent below the median. The Rays have done exceptionally well in trades (sometimes at the Pirates’ expense), but in general, the more a team spends in free agency, the more games they win.
The correlation coefficient between free agent spending and win total since 2007 is 0.57 which marks a strong correlation. Around 33 percent of a team’s success can be explained by how much they spend in free agency. When you factor in all the variables that can affect a team’s success (how well they draft, how well they’ve done in trades, the quality of their competition, dumb luck), 33 percent is a significant portion.
In recent seasons especially, Nutting has been reluctant to spend at all. Marte, of course, was traded away earlier this week. Andrew McCutchen was traded in the final year of a team-friendly extension rather than bringing him back. Gerrit Cole was dealt away before he could make a moderate amount of money in his second year of arbitration.
The Pirates haven’t been winning, but that hasn’t stopped Nutting and the Pirates organization from raking it in hand over fist. When Nutting took over the Pirates, the team had an estimated value of $274 million. In 2019, the Pirates were valued at $1.3 billion.
Sure, that’s dwarfed by the Yankees, Dodgers, and Red Sox, but if the competitive balance tax is supposed to curb the mega market teams, small market teams like the Pirates need to act in good faith and invest in their team. While the Pirates are running out the lowest payroll in the division, they’ll still benefit from the league’s revenue sharing system despite no efforts to compete.
There are other reasons for why the Pirates find themselves in the cellar of the National League. They have stuck to the sinker when all evidence suggests they should elevate the fastball, the farm system hasn’t been able to sustain the major league roster. What few valuable prospects, they’ve had, they’ve traded away. No amount of spending this winter would have made the Pirates contenders, but their miserly approach is why they’re in this hole to begin with.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.