Bob Smizik: How runaway MLB salaries will affect Pirates

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Some unfinished business today:

With a gaping hole in the rotation looming, where were the Pirates and Neal Huntington when the Detroit Tigers put right-handed pitcher Doug Fister on the market? Fister was snagged in early December by the Washington Nationals with a package of three players, who were mostly going nowhere?

Fister, 30 and with two years of team control remaining, was 32-20 with a 3.29 ERA with Detroit the previous three seasons. With Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez already at the top of their rotation, the Nationals had less need than many team for another quality starter. But the Fister deal was too good to pass up.

Here’s what Dave Cameron of FanGraphs.com wrote about the trade:

''We haven’t seen a player this good get traded for this little in years, and it’s mystifying how Mike Rizzo managed to get Fister for this price. This deal put the Nationals right back in playoff contention, and it did so for such a low cost that I still haven’t found anyone who thinks the Tigers made a good trade. When a deal is universally accepted as a heist, you’ve done something very right.’’

Surely, the Tigers did not limit their return by talking to only one team. So where were the Pirates?

Since this subject has not been publicly broached with Huntington, let me offer a guess as to why the Pirates were not interested in a pitcher who would clearly elevate their staff.

Fister avoided arbitration with the Nationals by agreeing to a $7.2 million one-year deal. Which means, there’s a good chance his 2015 salary, his final year of arbitration, will be $10 million or more.

And there you have it: As always, follow the money. There’s no mystery here. Huntington has said the Pirates won’t pay market value. This is no diatribe against Bob Nutting or Pirates frugality. It is a facts-of-life look at baseball economics in the second decade of the 21st century.

Here are some of those facts:

• The price for a competent but hardly excellent starting pitcher is now $17.5 million annually. That’s what the Cincinnati Reds will be paying Homer Bailey, 27, on a six-year, $105 million contract agreed to this week. Bailey, 27, is 49-45 with a 4.25 ERA for his career. He is a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher with the Reds.

• As of yesterday, the price for a really, really good fielding shortstop whose lifetime OPS is under .700 went to $8.29 million a year. That’s what the Braves agreed to pay defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons, 24, in a seven-year, $58 million contract. With 17 home runs last season, Simmons also showed some significant offensive upside.

Simmons’ deal is almost identical to the six-year $51.5 million contract the Pirates signed with Andrew McCutchen two years ago. And no one is suggesting Simmons has the value of McCutchen. Nor should anyone think Simmons is being overpaid. Writing at ESPN.com, former MLB general manager Jim Bowden called the deal ''a fantastic bargain’’ for Atlanta.

Here's further proof of the Pirates inability to compete economically. Consider the Bailey contract -- $17.5 million annually for six years -- and now consider this: The Pirates would not pay A.J. Burnett, who is a better pitcher than Bailey, $14.1 million for one year.

When the Pirates current management team took over in 2007, with its plan to build a farm system that would annually churn out talent, it’s not likely even the savviest visionary could have predicted the considerable increase in player salaries that has taken place.

Based on what we’ve seen of the Pirates ability/willingness to pay, it’s entirely possible they’ll have a hard time keeping high-end players even through their arbitration years. Gerrit Cole, for example, is contractually bound to the Pirates through the 2019 season. But if Cole continues to be the dominant pitcher he showed himself to be late last season, will the Pirates be able to afford him through his arbitration years?

In David Price’s three arbitration seasons with Tampa Bay, he has received $28.46 million. By 2017, which figures to be Cole’s first season of arbitration eligibility, his payout could come close to doubling the $4.35 million Price received in 2012. In Price’s next two seasons, he has received $10.1 million and $14 million. Who wants to hazard a guess what Cole, if he continues to excel, will receive in his second and third arbitration seasons?

The initial reaction to all this is MLB needs to take steps of some kind to curb this kind of spending. Except for this: It is Cincinnati, considered a small-market team, that is paying Bailey $105 million. The Reds also have contracts with Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce worth $225 million, $72.5 million and $51 million, respectively.

If the Reds can make such deals, why would anyone believe the system needs to be fixed.


First Published February 20, 2014 5:30 AM

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