Ben Cherington was not fibbing.
The Pittsburgh Pirates general manager told reporters that the team’s payroll would be higher in 2024 than it was this year during the Winter Meetings last week in Nashville.
The Pirates will indeed spend more on players next year. Of course, surpassing last season’s payroll isn’t much of a feat.
At $51.7 million, the Pirates had the second-lowest opening-day payroll in the major leagues in 2023. The Oakland Athletics had the lowest at $33.7 million but they had their eyes on skipping town and going to Las Vegas.
The Pirates aren’t threatening to move. At least, not yet.
The PNC Park expires following the 2030 season. It will be interesting to see if Bob Nutting plays the “we-might-leave-town card” by then.
What is certain, though, is the Pirates’ payroll isn’t going up substantially next season.
That has been quite clear with the Pirates’ first two significant offseason moves. They traded for veteran left-handed pitcher Marco Gonzales last week and agreed to terms on a one-year contract with free agent first baseman Rowdy Tellez this week.
The Pirates will pay Gonzales just $3 million next year as the Atlanta Braves and Seattle Mariners assume the rest of his $12.25-million salary. Tellez agreed to a $3.2-million deal with the opportunity to add $800,000 more in performance bonuses.
That is not the Los Angeles Dodgers signing Shohei Ohtani for 10 years and $700 million. Sadly, it isn’t even like the Cincinnati Reds signing infielder Jeimer Candelario for three years and $45 million and the Kansas City Royals agreeing with right-hander Seth Lugo to the same terms.
Don’t blame Cherington, though. He was just the messenger. The GM receives his budget from Nutting.
The Pirates are never going to spend Ohtani money. Everybody knows that and no one reasonably expects a small-market franchise to have a player making $70 million – even if $68 million Is deferred – a year.
Yet, the Pirates could certainly sign a free agent to a three-year, $45-million contract.
The franchise isn’t bankrupt. The Pirates had a significant attendance boost last season and continue to receive money through Major League Baseball’s revenue-sharing system.
However, the way this offseason is unfolding, it is obvious that Nutting is not going to give Cherington the resources necessary to significantly improve a team that went 76-86 last season, an improvement of 14 games over 2022.
Yes, the Pirates are likely to sign right-hander Mitch Keller to a long-term extension before next season begins. Closer David Bednar might get a multi-year deal, too.
That would be great, but the Pirates need help right now. The NL Central race appears to be wide open and two more reliable starting pitchers could make the Pirates a threat to reach the postseason for the first time since 2015.
However, if the Pirates aren’t going to pay someone like Lugo $45 million, they aren’t spending what it takes to sign the type of pitchers they need.
The largest free agent contract in Pirates’ history is the three-year, $39-million deal given to left-hander Francisco Liriano during the 2013 Winter Meetings. That was a decade ago.
The Pirates say they are going to try to win in 2024. Yet their spending habits this winter indicate otherwise.
More likely, the Pirates feel their window of contention will open in 2025. So, perhaps they will try to acquire better players next offseason.
I am not holding my breath. Pittsburgh won’t even spend to the level of their small-market brethren like Cincinnati and Kansas City.
That is certainly discouraging, though history says it is not surprising.