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Pirates

Kevin Gorman: Pirates should follow Brewers blueprint

Kevin Gorman
| Monday, Oct. 1, 2018, 10:54 p.m.
Milwaukee Brewers center fielder Christian Yelich celebrates after defeating the Chicago Cubs, 3-1, in an NL Central title tiebreaker. Yelich fell one home run and one RBI short of winning the Triple Crown.
Milwaukee Brewers center fielder Christian Yelich celebrates after defeating the Chicago Cubs, 3-1, in an NL Central title tiebreaker. Yelich fell one home run and one RBI short of winning the Triple Crown.

Bob Nutting pointed to the Milwaukee Brewers as a blueprint for the Pittsburgh Pirates, considering they are a small-market club that won 86 games in 2017 despite having a $69 million payroll.

“The Brewers had maybe the lowest payroll in baseball last year, competitive right down to the wire,” Nutting said in February at Pirate City, a month after the Pirates principal owner signed off on trading staff ace Gerrit Cole and former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen. “There are lots of models. What we need to focus on are the opportunities to optimize our chances to win.”

The Pirates took a chance to optimize their opportunities by not only keeping their veterans at the trade deadline but adding starter Chris Archer and reliever Keone Kela, a pair of power pitchers with multiple years of club control, to shore up the starting rotation and bullpen.

Those moves didn’t push the Pirates into the playoffs, but they finished 82-79 for only their fourth winning season since 1993. The Pirates both exceeded expectations for this season and created them for next year.

So did their blueprint.

The Brewers clinched the NL Central on Monday, modeling for the Pirates that adding payroll with the right players could be the difference between playing in the postseason and watching from home.

General manager Neal Huntington has maintained the focus is to put the Pirates “in position to win the World Series,” but they have yet to win the NL Central, let alone a playoff series.

The Pirates must show they are willing to spend. That’s what pushed the Brewers, transforming their outfield by signing Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80-million contract and trading four prospects to Miami for Christian Yelich.

Yelich fell one RBI short of becoming the NL’s first Triple Crown winner in 80 years, and Cain delivered the winning RBI for a 3-1 victory over the Cubs on Monday at Wrigley Field in the tiebreaker to clinch the division title.

That’s called bang for your buck.

The Bucs desperately need some bang for the middle of their batting order. Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte were the only Pirates with 20 or more home runs this season, so addressing the power shortage should be a priority this offseason. With so much uncertainty about the timetable for Polanco’s return from shoulder surgery, they can’t afford to wait until June to add a big bat to their lineup.

If the Pirates didn’t shed their reputation for being penny-pinchers by trading for Archer, Kela and outfielder Corey Dickerson, they can by spending this offseason. According to Spotrac.com, the Pirates’ payroll was $90 million this season, which ranked 27th in MLB. The Pirates already shed the salary of David Freese, aren’t likely to exercise their options on Josh Harrison and Jung Ho Kang and could allow Jordy Mercer to leave via free agency. That’s a projected savings of about $25 million.

The Brewers boosted their payroll by $40 million, yet still ranked 22nd in MLB at $109 million.

The Pirates return a core that features Marte, Polanco and Josh Bell and a solid starting rotation in Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove, Ivan Nova and Archer. September allowed Adam Frazier to show he can handle second base and gave the Pirates a long look at prospects at other positions.

Where the Pirates made a smart move by trading for Dickerson, who batted .300 and played left field better than they could have imagined, it’s also symbolic of how payroll dictates their decisions. Dickerson came cheaper than McCutchen but could be almost as expensive as Yelich next year. After batting .300 with 13 home runs and 55 RBIs, Dickerson could see his $5.95 million salary significantly increase in arbitration.

The Pirates could have had the 26-year-old Yelich, who will make $9.75 million next season, $12.5 million in 2020 and $14 million in 2021, a contract comparable to what the Pirates are paying Marte. That’s a bargain for the likely NL MVP, a Triple Crown candidate in his prime. It’s easy to say in hindsight that Yelich is the type of player the Pirates should be seeking, but that was evident last winter when Miami was holding a fire sale.

And the Pirates didn’t sign one free agent to a major-league contract last offseason, something they can’t afford to do if they want to be a championship contender next season.

If the Pirates are to follow a blueprint, it should be how the Brewers built from the bottom and added to the top.

You can’t argue with the results.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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