NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nothing stirs up Pittsburgh Pirates’ fans quite like the team’s player payroll.
Owner Bob Nutting takes plenty of criticism for the Pirates annually having one of the lowest-spending teams in the major league. The heat is justified because Nutting often won’t spend to the level necessary for the Pirates to be competitive.
And the Pirates are rarely competitive. Everyone knows that the franchise hasn’t been to the postseason since 2015, hasn’t won a division title since 1992 and hasn’t made a World Series appearance since 1979.
Those droughts can’t be blamed solely on low payrolls. However, they have often been an obstacle too large for the Pirates to overcome.
So, there was a little bit of reason for optimism on Tuesday when general manager Ben Cherington said that the Pirates’ payroll is likely to be higher in 2024 than 2023.
Granted, it’s not a high threshold as the Pirates’ opening-day payroll was just $46.9 million at the start of last season, according to Cot’s Contracts. That was the second-lowest figure in the major leagues behind the Oakland Athletics at $33.9 million.
However, Cherington did say that the Pirates will be able to add payroll, especially if their latest youth movement comes to fruition with a competitive team in the years to come.
“Generally speaking, as we get better, I expect the payroll will continue to climb with us,” Cherington said during the Winter Meetings at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Resort. “The motivation is that I expect we can push that as we get better. It’s the chicken or the egg but the competitiveness can help that. That’s the way we’re operating and it’s very clear to me that we have resources we can use this offseason to make the team better.”
The Pirates haven’t used those resources so far. Their biggest transaction has been signing journeyman catcher Ali Sanchez as a free agent.
Sanchez, 26, has played in just seven major-league games. A case can be made that he is fourth on the Pirates’ catching depth chart behind Endy Rodriguez, Jason Delay and Henry Davis.
In fairness, the free agent and trade markets have been relatively slow this offseason and little has happened at the Winter Meetings since they began Sunday.
The Pirates are without a local television contract for 2024 following the demise of AT&T Sportsnet. Cherington said the unsettled TV situation should not impact the payroll this year, though.
It’s doubtful the Pirates will wind up having to show their games on tape delay on WQED. They will have some kind of right deal in place by opening day.
However, the unsettled landscape of cable television could eventually affect payroll.
“No doubt there’s an impact on the industry at large,” Cherington said. “We’re very aware of that and it’s part of the planning and we know this year it’s hard to predict exactly what it’s going to be, so we’ll do the best we can to predict that going forward. We’re in the middle of the shift and what that looks like for the industry and TV and trying to guess what that landscape is going to look like five years from now – and it’s kind of a guess.
“What we do know is that it’s important that our games are on TV, and we have the reach that we need so that all of our fans can see the games, not just in Pittsburgh but across the country. We’re going to try to be a part of that solution the best that we can. In the meantime, we feel good about the resources we have and that we can use them to help the team get better.”
The payroll is going up – even if it isn’t likely to be much — and Pirates’ fans will take even slightly good news on that front.