All-Star first baseman Josh Bell has broken through as the Pirates’ franchise player this season, his last pre-arbitration campaign. Considering the 26-year-old’s days of making league-minimum money are on the verge of ending, Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked agent Scott Boras on Monday if Bell would have interest in signing a contract extension with the Pirates. Unless the Pirates are willing to make an expensive long-term commitment, it doesn’t seem as if it’s going to happen.
“Pittsburgh really doesn’t have a history of giving star player contracts yet,” Boras told Mackey. “Maybe they will someday. They’ve had a history of signing players before they’ve evolved into stars.”
In Boras’ estimation, the Pirates haven’t shown a willingness “to go out and invest in a great young player for a long time,” though he didn’t rule out an eventual change in policy on the franchise’s end.
Pittsburgh has still never doled out a guaranteed contract greater than the $60MM it handed catcher Jason Kendall on an extension in 2000. The team has since extended several other players it viewed as cornerstones – including Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Felipe Vazquez in recent years – to deals geared toward cancelling out the arbitration process and as many free-agent seasons as possible.
The Pirates haven’t gotten hurt on any of the McCutchen, Marte, Polanco and Vazquez deals, and they especially struck gold in signing McCutchen. The club inked McCutchen, then 25, to a six-year, $51MM guarantee entering the 2012 season, at which point he was coming off his first of five straight All-Star campaigns. McCutchen’s pact bought out his final pre-arbitration season, all three of his arbitration years, two free-agent years and included a $14.5MM club option for 2018. The Pirates ultimately exercised that option, though McCutchen spent the final year of his contract with the Giants and Yankees after a trade out of Pittsburgh. Still, he was among the majors’ top players on his ultra-affordable contract – including during an MVP-winning season in 2013 – and wound up as one of the best, most revered players in the history of the Pirates.
While Bell has taken the torch from McCutchen as the face of the franchise, the Pirates would be hard-pressed to lock up the former to such a team-friendly deal. The Pirates would likely love to do that, but their low-budget ways don’t sit well with Boras, who told Mackey: “The Pirates are making a lot of money. The revenue structure of this game, you can go back and look at 2003 or ‘04, they’re probably making $100 million more than they did back then. Yet their payroll is within $20 million of where it was back then. The ability to do it is not the question. It’s the model, the choice of what they want.”
Boras isn’t wrong, as Mackey points out. The Pirates’ Opening Day payroll has climbed by just $20MM (from $54.8MM to $74.8MM) dating back to 2003. Over the same span, though, their listed revenue has skyrocketed from $109MM to $254MM. That increase didn’t lead to the Pirates keeping one of their prior high-profile Boras clients, right-hander Gerrit Cole, whom they traded to the Astros before the 2018 season. Cole was going into his second-last year of arbitration eligibility at the time.
It’s obviously too soon to write off Bell as a soon-to-be ex-Pirate. However, if the Pirates don’t present the slugger a long-term offer that at least surpasses (perhaps obliterates) the Kendall contract, keeping him in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future may not be in the cards. For now, Bell’s on track to head to arbitration on the heels of what will go down as a career year. Having slashed .302/.376/.648 (152 wRC+) with 27 home runs in 388 plate appearances this season, Boras believes Bell “has identified himself” as one of the game’s elite players and someone “every franchise would like to have.”