Pittsburgh Pirates: Projecting 2020 First Year Arbitration

(Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images) /

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a large first year arbitration group next season.  Estimating how much those players will make in 2020, and what payroll is shaping up to be.

One of the more noteworthy stories coming from the Pittsburgh Pirates in the last month has been surrounding payroll.  At PiratesFest in January, team president Frank Coonelly alluded to the fact that the Pirates have eight players in their last year of pre-arbitration and how future payroll will go up as a result.  He also mentioned that this is a reason why payroll would be down this year.  Last week when talking to the media, team owner Bob Nutting talked about “focusing on what is controllable” and discussing payroll limitations.

The Pirates payroll per Cot’s currently sits at $68.4 million and Baseball-Reference projects the club’s payroll to sit at $74 million this upcoming season.  When looking at a “Baseball Pricing Index“, I found that the deflator for 2010 (ie calculating inflation) was 0.69, making a $74 million payroll in 2019 roughly the same as a $51 million payroll in 2010.  This is what Kevin Creagh, of The Point of Pittsburgh, used to show how galling a $75 million payroll is.

Looking at real payroll for the Pirates and the league median and percent change for every year since 2010:

Comparing Pirates Payroll 2010-18
YearLeague MedianPiratesPercent of League MedianLeague Median %ΔPirates %Δ
*Numbers are opening day payrolls from Cot’s and adjusted using the BPI

The Pirates increased their real payroll by 6.84 percent entering the 2016 season, but have since decreased by 8.73 percent entering 2017 and 9.19 percent entering 2018, while looking at another decrease entering 2019.  The Pirates percent of the league median peaked in 2016, but has since dropped to 64.44 percent in 2018.  As the team rose from basement dwellers to contenders, the payroll increased and they increased their percentage of the league median.  However, over the last two seasons with still a solid core, those two numbers have fallen and they look to fall again coming off a season in which the club won 82 games.

The Pirates front office insists it’s because of the eight first time arbitration eligible players: Chad Kuhl, Joe Musgrove, Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, Josh Bell, Elias Diaz, Adam Frazier and Erik Gonzalez.  To look at estimated first year arbitration, this will be split into two sections – pitchers and hitters – and broken down by player.

First Year Arbitration: Pitchers

Chad Kuhl

Chad Kuhl in his career has posted a 4.37 ERA, 4.30 FIP, and a 4.94 DRA.  After adjusting for the league and park, Kuhl has a career 106 ERA-, 103 FIP-, and 107.3 DRA-.  He has been worse than a league average pitcher for his career, but he has been slowly increasing his strikeout rate since adding a curveball in mid 2017.  In 85 innings in 2018, Kuhl produced 1.0 WARP, and producing 1.8 WARP for his career (Fangraphs has him at 3.4 wins above replacement and Baseball-Reference 2.6 wins).

The problem for the 26-year-old is that he won’t see the mound in Pittsburgh until 2020, undergoing Tommy John surgery this past summer.  As a pitcher with a backend ceiling who might profile better as a power fastball and slider reliever, this procedure might have sealed that.  Regardless, he will be arbitration eligible after the season.

Because of this missed time, it’s made finding a comparable to Kuhl rough, with one name being Jarrod Parker, a former pitcher with the Oakland Athletics.  Parker pitched to a 3.68 ERA, 3.93 FIP, and a 4.01 DRA on his way to 4.8 WARP over his first two seasons before missing all of 2014 with Tommy John.  Despite missing 2014, the right-handed pitcher earned $850,000 in arbitration, beating the Athletics.  Josh Tomlin posted a 4.95 ERA, 4.59 FIP, and -0.4 WARP before missing 2013 with Tommy John.  He lost against the Indians in arbitration and received $800,000.

Kuhl is somewhere in between the two; Parker being a very good starter before needing surgery and Tomlin really struggling.  Taking the average of the two puts Kuhl at $825,000 for the 2020 season.

Joe Musgrove

After coming over in the Gerrit Cole trade, Musgrove pitched well for the first time out of the rotation, posting a 4.06 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 3.43 DRA, and 2.5 WARP.  The right-hander still battled the injury bug, tossing only 115.3 innings.  That was one downfall of the year for him.  For his career, the 26-year-old has split time in and out of the bullpen (pitching much better out of the pen pre 2018), posting a career 4.33 ERA, 4.02 FIP, 4.05 DRA, and 4.3 WARP.  PECOTA projects Musgrove to the tune of a 1.4 WARP season in 136.7 innings.

This projection combined with the two previous years gives Musgrove 5.1 WARP over the three years entering arbitration.  His old teammate in Houston, Lance McCullers Jr., might be the best comparison because of the oft injured seasons.  McCullers in his three years prior to arbitration posted 5.8 WARP in 325.3 innings.  The biggest difference is McCullers made all his outings in the regular season as starts, compared to Musgrove making 24 outings out of the pen.

Another comparable might be Dylan Bundy of the Baltimore Orioles.  Bundy has pitched to a 4.65 ERA, making 73 starts and 22 relief outings in the three years before arbitration.  Bundy avoided arbitration with the Orioles, and he’ll make $2.8 million.  Similarly, McCullers and the Astros avoided arbitration before 2018 with McCullers earning $2.45 million.

At a 50/50 shot between the two, Musgrove comes out to $2.625 million in his first year of arbitration.

Jameson Taillon

The Pirates number one starter has battled a lot since being the second overall pick in 2010; undergoing Tommy John, having a hernia, and battling cancer.  He has stood tough, and in his first real full season, the 27-year-old posted a 3.10 ERA, 3.46 FIP, and was worth 4.2 wins.  For his career, Taillon has a 3.63 ERA, 3.53 FIP, 3.74 DRA, and a WARP of 8.2.  Taillon projects for a 3.45 ERA and 2.7 WARP this year via PECOTA.

Based on that projection, and 2017 and 2018, Taillon will go into arbitration averaging three wins a season over the previous three years.  His good friend Gerrit Cole averaged 3.36 and Shelby Miller averaged 1.6 WARP (in the middle of what were three win seasons, Miller was worth -1.2 wins).  Cole settled for $3.75 million (was projected for and Miller received $4.35 million.  The difference being Cole coming off a season in which he was injured late and produced 1.2 WARP compared to Miller producing 3.0 WARP in a 205.3 inning season.

Earlier this season when writing about a Taillon extension, I admitted to using an overestimate of what Taillon would likely receive, and showed Cole as an example.  Taillon looks to be a cross of the two, and since arbitration is based on comparables what Cole was projected to earn doesn’t really matter.  Giving Taillon a 75 percent chance of earning what Miller did and 25 percent of what Cole did comes out to $4.2 million (which happens to be the same estimate Cole received).

Trevor Williams

After starting his rookie season of 2017 in the bullpen before making 25 starts and posting a 4.07 ERA, Williams pitched to a 3.11 ERA, 3.86 FIP, a 4.28 DRA, and 2.0 WARP in 2018.  His 3.11 ERA stems from his sizzling second half, where the soon to be 27-year-old tossed a 1.38 ERA.  For his career, Williams has  a 3.72 ERA, 4.05 FIP, 4.42 DRA, and 3.7 WARP.

In each of his two seasons and cup of coffee, Williams has held steady at an 18 percent strikeout rate and eight percent walk rate, below the league rate in terms of strikeouts and just at it with respect to walks.  Because of this lack of strikeout ability, Williams only projects for 0.8 WARP in 148.3 innings according to PECOTA, putting his three-year mark before arbitration at 4.6.

A comparison might be Zach Davies of the Milwaukee Brewers, as he has posted a 4.06 ERA in his three years leading up to arbitration in 74 starts, but Davies did only pitch in 13 games last season.  This right-hander also posted 5.2 WARP, a little more than what is projected for Williams.  Davies and the Brewers reached a deal for $2.6 million, but this is the estimate we’ll use for Williams based on the similarities leading up to arbitration.

First Year Arbitration: Batters

Josh Bell

Bell presents an intriguing challenge; is he the .211 ISO and .334 on-base player seen in 2017 or the .150 ISO and .357 on-base player seen in 2018?  Or somewhere in between there?  For his career the switch hitting first baseman has hit .260/.348/.436 and PECOTA has projected at .254/.338/.422 with 18 home runs and a .168 ISO, so seemingly somewhat in between 2017 and 2018.  Bell, with his PECOTA projection, will be at 1.5 WARP in the three years before his first year of arbitration.

Leading up to his arbitration, Logan Morrison hit .241/.325/.422 with 2.0 WARP.  He earned $1.75 million in 2014 after reaching an agreement with the Mariners.  Ike Davis hit .252/.336/.461 in his three years.  However, the lefty was worth 4.5 WARP and did hit 32 home runs the year before he was arbitration eligible.  He made $3.125 million after avoiding arbitration with the Mets.

Bell seems more like Morrison, some on-base with less pop, putting it 0.8 Morrison and 0.2 Davis (there is a chance Bell gets back to that power, but being able to match the 4.5 WARP would take essentially a four win season from a player who hasn’t been worth a win yet.  Arbitration is based on traditional numbers, though so while the odds are small, there is a chance for Bell to earn what Davis did), puts Bell’s first year arbitration at $2.03 million.

Elias Diaz

Diaz will be entering his first year of arbitration coming off being a backup catcher and entering a full-time spot the next season (assuming the Pirates don’t re-sign Francisco Cervelli).  Diaz broke out last year, hitting .286/.339/.452 and being worth 1.9 WARP.  Over the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the backstop has hit .259/.308/.393 with 1.5 WARP.  PECOTA projects Diaz at a .245/.293/.364 line with 0.2 WARP, giving him 1.7 WARP entering arbitration.

Tony Wolters of the Colorado Rockies hit .226/.322/.321 with 3.6 WARP in his three years preceding arbitration, where he and the Rockies avoided at $960,000 (Wolters was projected at $1.1 million).  Manny Pina of the Brewers hit .264/.320/.409 in his three years with 3.2 WARP, he and the Brewers avoided arbitration at $1.6 million for this upcoming season.  Splitting it to 50/50 on which way Diaz goes, has the estimate at $1.09 million.

Adam Frazier

In his final year before arbitration, Adam Frazier will be finally be a regular.  In the previous two seasons the left-handed utility player has hit .276/.343/.424 with 2.7 WARP.  This includes a 2018 in which Frazier struggled early, was sent to Triple-A Indianapolis, and made a swing adjustment with his hands.  The Pirates projected starting second baseman is projected for a 1.7 win season while hitting .271/.335/.415 via PECOTA.

This projection and years preceding arbitration, put Frazier at 4.4 WARP.  Joe Panik was first time arbitration eligible in 2018, and he hit .278/.345/.416 with 4.6 WARP from 2015-17, making him comparable to Frazier.  Both are left-handed hitting second baseman with high bat-to-ball skills and on-base production compared to limited power.  Panik hit 28 home runs in this three-year span and Frazier projects to hit 28 home runs as well.

In his first year of arbitration, Panik and the Giants avoided arbitration at $3.45 million, near his projected $3.5 million.  This might be the most comparable player of any of the comps on the list, and Frazier for 2020 will be projected at $3.5 million as well.

Erik Gonzalez

The new player on the Pirates, Erik Gonzalez, will enter 2019 as either the Pirates starting shortstop or be the utility man if Kevin Newman beats him out.  The athletic 27-year-old is more known for his glove than the back, even back to his prospect days receiving a 30 power grade, 55 field, and 60 throw.  In his short time in the majors, he has hit .263/.292/.389 and 0.2 WARP in just 275 plate appearances over 162 games.

PECOTA doesn’t project for a rosier picture, just a line of .236/.275/.372 and being worth 0.0 WARP over 418 plate appearances (Newman projects at .238/.286/.344, which makes the battle seemingly come down to the glove).  Neal Huntington has compared Gonzalez to a young Freddy Galvis and Newman to a young Jordy Mercer, and so naturally Galvis comes to mind as a potential comparison.

In this case, the comparison works.  Galvis hit .245/.287/.350 and 1.9 WARP in 953 plate appearances and 264 games in the three years prior to his first year of arbitration in 2016.  Given that Cole Tucker appears to be ready for 2020 and Newman will still be at league minimum in 2020 and 2021, Gonzalez almost certainly has to reach around 1.5 WARP this season to be tendered at the end of the season.  Reaching that mark makes Galvis the perfect comparison, giving him a projected $2 million in arbitration, which is what Galvis and the Phillies settled at (he was projected at $1.9 million).

In Total

Summing up the arbitration estimates, the eight Pirates come in around $19 million in salary that will be added:

Projected 2020 First Year Arbitration
PlayerSalaryRunning Total

Off the books will be Francisco Cervelli’s $11.5 million and Corey Dickerson‘s $8.5 million, essentially breaking even, but after factoring in Jordan Lyles, Jung Ho Kang, and Lonnie Chisenhall they’ll be down about $8 million.  The options of Starling Marte and Chris Archer certainly will be picked up, Gregory Polanco and Felipe Vazquez will also see additions in 2020, and these four will cost about $35 million.  Add the $19 million and the Pirates will have $54 million tied to 12 players.  Colin Moran, Kyle Crick, Steven Brault, Edgar Santana, Richard Rodriguez, and Mitch Keller will all be at or near league minimum which adds $3.6 million (assuming league an average of $600,000 as league minimum is a cost of living adjustment for 2020).

18 players at $57.6 million with Keone Kela in his last year of arbitration leaves the Pirates at around $62 million with 19 players.  If the Pirates don’t bring back Kang for 2020, all depending on his performance this year,  Ke’Bryan Hayes will take over the spot mid year, likely from Moran with both at league minimum.  Projecting ahead, the spots that look like will be open are a relief spots (Nick Burdi, Nick Kingham, Michael Feliz, and Dovydas Neverauskas will compete this year to stick around next year.  This assumes Kuhl slides into a relief spot and Brault is able to show something, but two relief spots would make sense as well), a left-fielder (Jason Martin and Bryan Reynolds look to be fourth outfielders that’ll be ready in 2020), another catcher behind Diaz, and then a true fourth outfielder and potentially a third baseman a la David Freese entering 2016.

Projecting for five open spots at a payroll of around $62 million tied with 19 players seems like flexibility to add to the big league club on a two-year deal or three-year deal, and one that would get them back to their levels of 2015 and 2016 compared to the league median.  Dallas Keuchel is still a free agent, and is projected for a 2.1 WARP season by PECOTA, giving the Pirates a top three projected at 7.2 wins above replacement.  Joakim Soria got two years and $15 million this year, that would have looked to be a solid addition (projected 3.55 ERA and 0.7 WARP) to replace Santana as he recovers from Tommy John.

Next. 2019 Draft Preview. dark

Yes the Pirates first year eligible players will cost a good chunk of change in 2020, and increase the following two years.  But they project for all that much more than what is coming off the books at the end of the year, and with an already low payroll some of the one or two-year deals that have been signed this offseason wouldn’t have titled the scale in payroll all that much for 2019 or 2020.

*Numbers from Baseball-ReferenceBaseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, and all arbitration estimates from MLB Trade Rumors