The Elephant in the Pittsburgh Pirates War Room


Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington has his work cut out for him this winter.

We’ve previously talked about the crunch the Bucs will feel in arbitration. We haven’t even yet begun to start our free agent coverage, and already it’s apparent just how many holes this team has to fill.

Yes, Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gerrit Cole aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

But yes, the flip side of that coin shows us that the Pirates will be in need of a number three starting pitcher, maybe a setup man, and will have to work to rebuild their bench.

Such is life for Major League Baseball clubs.

But that life may look very different relatively soon.

In case you weren’t aware, MLB’s collective bargaining agreement expires on Dec. 1 2016. No, the 1994 strike will not happen again, likely ever. Those hard lessons are still fresh in the mind of some owners, and especially in long-time fans. Both MLB and the MLB Player’s Association will not make that same mistake again.

Let’s fast forward a bit. How can potential labor unrest affect the Pittsburgh Pirates? Here’s a couple of potential pitfalls:

1.  International Signings

Even the casual Pirates fan knows just how well the Pirates have done with international signings. The present regulations in regards to international signings are very convoluted. While there really is no heavy disadvantage to either party in the current system, the Pirates may see the hard work put in by staffers such as Rene Gayo be dampened should MLB and MLBPA agree to standardize the process. MLB already took a shot at this by attempting to institute an international draft. That was shot down by the MLBPA but it’s fair to wonder if they realize that lack of a standardized process may in fact have lowered salaries as a result.

Basically, with a standardized system, teams that have put in work to build in-roads in Latin America may have to re-think their strategies to be more in line with traditional thinking. And the Pittsburgh Pirates hate traditional thinking.

Considering that the Pirates are not free-spenders as it is, Huntington may be forced to dip his toe in the water rather than carefully get in. (The Dodgers are your annoying cousin who just cannonballs in every time)

2.  Revenue Sharing Changes

Almost as complicated as the international rules are the revenue sharing guidelines. Baseball attempts to improve competitive balance in one of two ways: through a luxury tax and plain revenue sharing. The revenue sharing part is easy. All teams put in 31% of their local revenue and then all 30 teams take out an equal share. At first this seems to favor smaller market teams like the Pirates. In reality, it results in the Dodgers and Yankees of the world paying what amounts to a pittance while they continue to spend.

The luxury tax can be seen as even more backwards. The luxury tax pulls an arbitrary number out of a hat – $189 million in 2015 – sometimes years in advance. Teams that spend above that are subjected to a luxury tax with escalating values of 17.5% of payroll to start (the figure goes up if a team spends consecutive years above the decided-upon figure). The caveat here is that this money does not go to teams. Rather, it is put towards “industry development” which is code for marketing.

Here’s how this affects the Pirates. While it’s hard to predict any specific hindrance changes to the current model may cause, the uncertainty could be enough to give the Pirates serious pause this winter in signing free agents. Considering that the Pirates are not free-spenders as it is, Huntington may be forced to dip his toe in the water rather than carefully get in. (The Dodgers are your annoying cousin who just cannonballs in every time)

3. Service Time

Surely a term familiar to most baseball fans, service time may be due for big changes in the next CBA. The transparency of the Cubs’ plans in delaying Kris Bryant‘s arrival this year is sure to be a sore spot for the MLBPA and as such I expect a lot of pushback from that side of the table.

The Pirates have done a pretty good job taking advantage of the current service time system. All of the hand-wringing over Cole and Gregory Polanco as it relates to their debuts seems to have been the right move in retrospect, and purely for baseball reasons. We are going to go through round three of this debate next year when Tyler Glasnow likely starts the year with the Indianapolis Indians.

If the service time system changes – whether it be higher league minimum salaries or knocking off a year before free agency – the Pirates may be even more reluctant to bring up their considerable farm talent. Couple that with major roster questions after the 2016 season, and even the smallest change could have a huge ripple effect.

It’s not all doom and gloom. The Pittsburgh Pirates have done a masterful job of adapting to the current economics and framework of MLB baseball.

Now that the right people are in charge, they can easily do it again, no matter the way the winds of labor change may blow.

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Next: Projecting non-tender candidates for the Pirates

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