You can’t just buy a World Series.
But, the money doesn’t hurt.
Over recent years, there has been a trend that has established a floor price for payroll to win a World Series title. That floor? $130 million dollars.
Depending on what source you use for this year, the Atlanta Braves opened the season with a $131-140+ million payroll. They ranked about middle of the pack in the league with that total. Their opponents, the Houston Astros, ranked fifth, with a $187.6 million Opening Day payroll.
The last few years have been dominated by teams at the top. The Los Angeles Dodgers won in 2020 with the second highest Opening Day payroll, and ranked first by the end of the year. The Washington Nationals were fourth in 2019. The Boston Red Sox had the highest payroll in 2018.
All three teams spent over $200 million dollars.
Like I said, spending money does help.
In terms of the Pittsburgh Pirates, spending $200 million in a season is a pipe dream that is very unlikely.
But, $130 million? That should be in their range.
Two other teams in recent years have won a World Series with a payroll in the $130 million range.
The Astros won in 2017 with a $134 million payroll. This was in the early stages of their rebuilding process, as their window was opening. The Astros also benefit from one of the highest local TV deals in the game, and have only seen their payroll go up since this point.
The Astros aren’t an example of how the Pirates can be sustainable, as I don’t think the Pirates would follow the same long-term payroll track. That said, their building approach is something the Pirates could follow. That approach was to spend nothing at all when the team was losing, and save that money for when the team was a contender.
The other World Series winner that had a $130 million payroll was Kansas City in 2015. The Royals took a similar approach of spending nothing while they were losing, then ramping up their spending when they were a contender. They spent $143 million, $153 million, and $126 million in the following years, but didn’t have winning seasons, now finding themselves back in the bottom ten of the league in payroll.
We already know that the Pirates are spending nothing right now. We don’t know how high their payroll will go on the other end, when they start contending.
When the Pirates were last contending, they spent as high as $110 million in two different years. Ironically, those came during losing seasons in 2016 and 2017. Those seasons, and the downfall years of the Royals are two situations which help to illustrate the point that you need to make good moves when you are spending money.
It’s not just about spending money.
(But, it helps.)
Under Ben Cherington, the Pirates have been dead last in payroll the last two seasons. Their combined total over two years has been below $80 million. By comparison, the Pirates had a $61 million payroll in 2012, the year before they reached the playoffs for the first time in 20 years.
There has been a lot of revenue added to the league since 2012. The Pirates signed a new TV deal since then, and while we don’t know the details, we can assume that they saw an increase over their former levels of $25 million a year.
What this is to say is that if the Pirates were topping out at $110 million in 2016-17, they should be able to relatively top out at $130 million now. Or, possibly higher.
That’s even more the case if they use the savings they have undoubtedly racked up the last two years by under-spending on losing teams.
If a World Series victory requires at least $130 million, then there’s no reason to think the Pirates can’t spend the price of admission.
The question is whether Bob Nutting will take a more exponential spending strategy than what we’ve seen in the past, followed by the question of whether Ben Cherington can make the right moves with the increased budget to get them to the final stage.
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