How Much Payroll Can the Pirates Trade Away?

With the trade deadline less than a week away, it’s time to start seriously considering what kind of pieces the Pittsburgh Pirates have to trade.

With the deadline being anything but normal this season, it’s fair to ask what kind of activity—if much of any—will happen on August 31st. There has been plenty of speculation as to why there could be much less activity than normal, enough that I don’t really need to retread, but here’s a quick recap in case you haven’t been following the situation closely:

  • The expanded playoff field has created an opportunity for most every team.
  • Do buyers find it worth their time to trade future pieces for an even fewer amount of regular season games and a shot at whatever the playoffs will look like this season?
  • Uncertainly around health and safety is leading to the possibility that a player acquired could pierce the team’s bubble or just opt out instead of moving. Also, the outside chance the whole thing is called off and team’s have traded assets for nothing could lead to pause.
  • Lack of revenue means the possibility of an even greater desire to avoid taking on payroll.
  • No minor league games and lack of scouting or solid information coming out of Alternative Training Sites means it’s harder to get a good feel on pieces coming back in trade.
  • Is it fair, moral, or humane to upend a player’s life right now?

Obviously, the Pirates are one of the teams that most everyone agrees is firmly in the “seller” column, barring a turnaround of course. The problem is that they don’t have a ton of great options to trade at the moment. With many of their ancillary pieces struggling, it’s uncertain what they could get for any given player right now. Of course, it’s unclear how team’s are valuing twenty of so games of baseball in such unusual circumstances, but at least from the outside looking in, it’s somewhat fair to assume that the market for someone like Josh Bell or Adam Frazier would be less than it was during this past offseason, for example.

Even though salary for this season was prorated on the basis of 60 games, I am still working off of the premise that payroll is calculated on a prorated, daily basis, as this still makes the most sense as far as assigning salary to any one team. This means that a team assumes financial commitment for every day a player is on the roster. Therefore, if a player is traded, the money they’ve already paid to the player stays on the books and the remaining financial commitment goes with them. While trading a player certainly comes with monetary gains, it’s not as much as is often assumed.

The following analysis will work off the assumption that every player is traded on the August 31st deadline. That means that the Pirates would be committed to the traded player’s salary through August 31st, and the team assigned the player would take it on as of September 1st, per Article XXIII (C)(2)(b)(i) of the CBA:

If a Uniform Player’s Contract is assigned by any means to another Major League Club, the assignor Club shall be allocated Salary through the date of the assignment and Salary shall begin being allocated to the assignee Club on the following day, regardless of the Player’s reporting date.

Finally, I won’t only be including straight cash saved as part of this analysis, but prorated portions of signing bonuses and buyouts as well. Those are part of the Competitive Balance Tax payroll calculations, and they would be included in the total that payroll would be going down according to official MLB calculations.

Without further ado:

Josh Bell

Signed through: 2020 (Arbitration Eligible for 2021 and 2022)

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $716,418

With the two years of control remaining after this season, plus the aforementioned slump Bell currently appears to be in, it’s less likely they move on from him now as opposed to this offseason, at the earliest. While I’m not as high on this idea as some, Bell’s objectively probably the team’s best asset at the moment—outside of the fringe contingency that could see Bryan Reynolds moving—and if any kind of extension is out of the question, it’s important for the Pirates to capitalize the best they can on whatever value the market assigns to Bell.

Jarrod Dyson

Signed through: 2020

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $298,508

Before the season, the thought was that the team could at least get something for Dyson come the deadline as a speedster off the bench, but that admittedly optimistic view is even probably out the window now. If anything, moving him for absolutely anything opens up some outfield time for players like Jared Oliva or Jason Martin, which should probably be considered a net gain at this point. Honestly, a DFA seems more likely, however.

Adam Frazier

Signed through: 2020 (Arbitration Eligible for 2021 and 2022)

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $417,910

Apparently, Frazier was seen as one of the team’s premiere trade chips over the offseason, and one wonders if teams still feel this way, despite his shaky start to the season. There are plenty other middle infield options at the moment—giving Cole Tucker a full opportunity to sink-or-swim for the rest of the season at his actual position stands out in my mind—that getting something for Frazier now may be preferred. Much like Bell, however, you don’t want to sell too low if it can be avoided.

Derek Holland

Signed through: 2020

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $186,567

One of the few names that I would assign the highest probability to actually be moved, Holland is certainly among them, as he serves little function to the team at the moment. Okay—maybe five solid innings are important every fifth day right now, but if the Pirates can get a pitching needy team like Atlanta to bite, they should sell and get any depth assets they can.

Not mentioned in Holland’s remaining salary are incentives he’s yet to meet based on innings. Incentives are prorated this season, and Holland has already reached the first threshold of 18 2/3 innings for $18,500 (my calculations). According to Article XXIII(C)(2)(b)(ii) of the CBA, it seems the Pirates could still be on the hook for any incentive met after the assignment of his contract:

(ii) Bonuses: Salary arising from Performance Bonuses earned after the assignment shall be allocated between the assignor and assignee Clubs in proportion to the total number of relevant events attained during the Contract Year with each Club.

Say Holland is traded before starting again and meets his next incentive mark, 28 innings pitched. In my opinion, the Pirates would be responsible for 23.3/28 of $18,500, with the same idea holding for 37 and 46 1/3 innings pitched. What’s not clear is if this is just a part of the calculation for the Completive Balance Tax or an actual expense on the books. If I were to guess I’d say the former, but that’s just my educated opinion.

Keone Kela

Signed through: 2020

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $555,970

Before the season, it was all but a given Kela would be moved for the best return as the Pirates’ top asset. The dreaded forearm tightness diagnosis a little more than a week before the deadline—on top of a COVID-Related delay to the start of his season—has greatly dampened those expectations. It’s highly unlikely that the Pirates would even consider—much less assign—a Qualifying Offer to Kela after the season, so getting anything they can now would be best, instead of losing him for nothing come October. The outside market restrictions mentioned above made it likely the return wouldn’t have been as great as hoped already, and it’s likely to be even less now, which isn’t great for whatever kind of build the front office is shooting for.

Chad Kuhl

Signed through: 2020 (Arbitration Eligible for 2021 and 2022)

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $125,373

I definitely would not have included Kuhl on this list if not for the recent reports that the Toronto Blue Jays could be interested. While I can see the idea of selling high on Kuhl, he seems to be holding up well post Tommy John, and I personally think it’s more prudent to hold out and see if this early success is something that can be built upon.

Colin Moran

Signed through: 2020 (Arbitration Eligible for 2021, 2022, and 2023)

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $88,582

I don’t really foresee a move for Moran at all, mostly because I think he holds very little value on the market; however, I’ve seen his name mentioned one or two places, so I figured I would at least include him.

Gregory Polanco

Signed through: 2021 (Club Options for 2022 and 2023)

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $1,677,612 in 2020 ($1,194,030 Base / $241,791 Signing Bonus & Buyout), $12,200,000 in 2021 ($11,000,000 Base / $600,000 Signing Bonus & Buyout)

Many fans are fed up with Polanco, but I honestly don’t know if the front office is there yet, or what kind of return would be available for him even if they were. While the payroll commitment isn’t huge, it’s certainly nothing to sneeze at either, especially in a world where teams are likely to do everything they can to avoid taking on future payroll commitments. Would the Pirates have to pay down a chunk of the deal just to get the rest off the books? Or what about include prospects to get out from under the deal? Fans are ready to be done with Polanco, but how receptive would they be to that maneuver again? Finally, Polanco’s shoulder injury certainly seems to have spelled his days as an outfielder, so would that affect his trade value—a DH or first baseman that, despite quality hard-hit rates, is having some struggles when he doesn’t connect (which has been quite frequent)?

While I personally think Polanco has gotten a bad rap in the past and continues to get piled on a bit, it is probably time to consider some of the hard truths that even just a few years back didn’t seem likely.

Richard Rodríguez

Signed through: 2020 (Arbitration Eligible for 2021, 2022, and 2023)

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $94,552

Aside from some long-ball issues, Rodríguez has been one of the team’s best, most consistent bullpen arms extending into last season. His name continues to show up in the rumor mill, and with bullpens around the league struggling, don’t be surprised if he’s one of the few players from the team actually moved on Monday.

Chris Stratton

Signed through: 2020 (Arbitration Eligible for 2021, 2022, and 2023)

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $87,836

Stratton has been of the team’s most reliable pieces out of the bullpen this year and has been at least solid since being claimed on waivers last season. At least one outlet thought enough to mention Stratton as a possible trade piece, but I don’t see him as being the most likely to be traded. I could see this going either way, but I find it more likely that Stratton sticks around, if I had to choose.

Trevor Williams

Signed through: 2020 (Arbitration Eligible for 2021 and 2022)

Guaranteed Salary Remaining: $421,642

Like Kuhl, I wasn’t really considering Williams here, but he did cross my mind and it at least makes a little more sense. Williams is more likely a serviceable starter than the impact one we saw the second half of 2018. While there’s nothing wrong with having Williams towards the back of a rotation, having to rely too much on him is probably the issue, and it wouldn’t hurt the Pirates to at least see what another team was willing to offer for his services.

*****

Adding up the remaining base salary alone in 2020—$4,187,388 if every player listed is traded, which is obviously unlikely—certainly shows there’s money to be saved. It’s a strange barometer with numbers seemingly so skewed, but that’s about roughly 16.7% of where I currently have the payroll projection for 2020 ($25,071,980). This season, even more than most, that’s a factor for many teams when making in-season trades; however, the Pirates are constantly preaching on the idea of identifying and acquiring talent, and this is an important time to back that up. Will they be able to capitalize on this deadline, or will they choose to sit it out, finding the circumstances untenable? Even worse, do they take part, but due to the uncertain market not get the kind of pieces this team desperately needs to help turn the corner?

We’re going to find out soon enough, and it’s going to be interesting to follow.

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