MLB has been in the Wild Card era for 26 years.
During that time, exactly one team has won the World Series with an Opening Day payroll in the bottom half of baseball. That team was the 2003 Florida Marlins, and their win was largely fueled by the selloff from their 1997 winning team, which ranked 7th in Opening Day payroll.
Only eight of the 26 World Series winners since 1995 have ranked outside of the top ten in payroll on Opening Day. Meanwhile, exactly half of the World Series winners during that time ranked in the top five in payroll.
To put this in perspective, in 2019 the 15th ranked payroll on Opening Day was $128.8 M. A payroll in the top five would have been at least $177 M.
I think we can rule the latter figure out for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The former figure shouldn’t be out of the question when they become winners again. That number 15 payroll on Opening Day in 2019 belonged to the Cincinnati Reds. They were joined by the Milwaukee Brewers at 14, and the Minnesota Twins at 16. If those teams can spend in that range, the Pirates should be able to do the same when they get back to being competitive.
The sad thing is that they can’t realistically spend to the top five of the league, which gives them the best chance to win it all. They can spend to a middle of the pack level, which would greatly improve their chances, based on historical winners. That would be an improvement on maintaining a bottom-third payroll and trying to be the exception to the rule like the Marlins in 2003.
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