Watching the MLB postseason can give you an idea of what the Pittsburgh Pirates will eventually need in order to have a chance at winning it all.
And it seems that the biggest factor that leads to the postseason, every single year, is money.
That’s not a good thing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, obviously. And if you look at the payrolls of this year’s MLB playoff teams, you’ll see the challenge that Pirates’ General Manager Ben Cherington is up against.
Below are the 2021 playoff teams, their Opening Day payroll rank, and their Opening Day payrolls.
Los Angeles Dodgers – 1 ($261.2 M)
New York Yankees – 2 ($203.6)
Boston Red Sox – 5 ($186.2)
Houston Astros – 6 ($188.2)
St. Louis Cardinals – 10 ($167.2)
San Francisco Giants – 11 ($162.8)
Atlanta Braves – 14 ($149.6)
Chicago White Sox – 15 ($141.6)
Milwaukee Brewers – 19 ($105.1)
Tampa Bay Rays – 26 ($76.9)
As it happens every year, most of the teams rank in the top half of the league in payroll. By this list, if you spend in the top 15 on Opening Day, you had a bit more than a coin-flip chance of making the playoffs.
By comparison, only 13% of the teams spending in the bottom half of the league reached the postseason.
Look at the numbers in the top half and bottom half.
I can imagine the Pirates spending what the Rays or Brewers opened with this year. The biggest payroll for the Pirates has been $110 million.
But, can you imagine Pirates’ owner Bob Nutting spending the $140+ million to make the Pirates just a middle of the pack payroll team?
Can you imagine $167+ million to be a top ten team?
For years, Nutting has said the Pirates will not deficit spend, and that was even during the time when attendance was over a million more fans a year and payroll was up to those triple-digit figures.
My suggestion for years has been a long-term budget. Rather than spending $100 million per year for five years, spend $100 million the first two and $400 million over the final three. That would at least put the Pirates in range of those middle-of-the-pack teams for three seasons, while giving Cherington room for error in the contending years.
We’ve seen the Pirates absolutely slash their budget the last two seasons while they have no chance to contend.
This is a good approach. It’s what I would suggest any small market team to do, and I’ve suggested it with the Pirates before Cherington took over.
That said, we don’t know if they will follow up with proportionally higher budgets when they are in contention. That will require a wait-and-see approach for them to reach contending status in the first place.
It still seems that the plan is to build a team organically, and then spend when the team is contending. That’s what the Pirates did the last time around. It’s what most small market teams do.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get fans to buy-in or trust this method. Most fans are only going to show up for a winner, and very few fans are going to show up for an obvious rebuilding team, as we saw this year.
This all makes Major League Baseball a game that feels like a job to watch for small market fans. This has become a league where the same big market teams are always contending, while the small market teams have to jump through hoops in order for just the chance to contend.
In other words, if you’re a Yankees fan right now, you know that your team will be contending for the playoffs next year.
And if you’re a Pirates fan, it feels like throwing darts trying to hit a bullseye if you want to predict when they will contend again.