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Analysis: Lack of spending far from only problem for Pirates

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The Pirates' Colin Moran reacts after striking out against the New York Mets to end the top of the eighth inning Wednesday, June 27, 2018, in New York.

When Marlon Byrd stepped to the plate to face Johnny Cueto in the second inning of the 2013 National League wild-card game, it didn’t matter that the Pirates’ payroll was $28 million less than that of Cueto’s Cincinnati Reds.

Byrd, who earned a base salary of $700,000, homered off the Reds’ $7.4 million pitcher.

A record 40,487 people filled PNC Park that night — remember when sellouts used to happen every Saturday night around here? — and famously and deliriously mocked Cueto.

When Cueto dropped the ball off the mound while preparing to face Pirates catcher Russell Martin, the place shook.

Martin earned less than Cueto. Martin also homered.

In those days, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, a smart man forced to wear handcuffs in the baseball marketplace, found a way to guide the third-smallest payroll in the NL ($77.8 million, according to spotrac.com) into the playoffs. He deserved far more credit than he received.

Is it so outrageously different for the Pirates this season with the second-smallest payroll ($98.3 million)?

Apparently so.

You might argue the Brewers are in first place in the NL Central with the lowest payroll in the league ($97.6 million). Good point, but they also have hit 100 home runs, 22 more than the Pirates.

But the gap is widening elsewhere. In 2013, the Pirates were less than $50 million below the Cardinals’ payroll when they won the Central. When the Cubs won it in 2016, the difference was $82.6 million. This year, it’s $94.9 million.

In baseball, there is spending, spending wisely and not spending enough.

Which brings us to the Pirates pitching staff.

Good pitching costs money. A total of 15 starting pitchers earn at least $21 million per season, including Cueto (now earning $21 million for the San Francisco Giants).

The Pirates chose to load up their starting rotation with strong, young, inexpensive arms. Their highest-paid pitcher is 31-year-old Ivan Nova ($9.17 million), and he’s 38th on the list.

Add up the salaries of the four 25- and 26-year-olds who start regularly — Joe Musgrove, Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams — and you get $2.282 million. A total of 94 starting pitchers earn more than that.

Let’s examine the Gerrit Cole trade with the Houston Astros.

The Pirates received four solid players for Cole, including starting third baseman Colin Moran, who’s having a fine rookie season. But his seven home runs and 29 RBIs are tied for 13th and 14th among players at his position in the National League. Salary: $550,000.

Musgrove was part of that deal, but he’ll make only his seventh start of the season Friday in San Diego after experiencing shoulder soreness throughout most of the spring.

He looks the part at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, with the ability to hit the upper 90s with his fastball. But he has allowed 16 earned runs in his past 19 innings. Salary: $571,000.

Meanwhile, Cole is 9-1 with a 2.56 ERA and 146 strikeouts (third in the majors) in 105 23 innings. He’s found a comfort level with the defending World Series champions that eluded him for most of his time in Pittsburgh. Salary: $6.75 million, and sure to quadruple by the time he signs another contract.

The Pirates want no part of that type of inflation, but there are realistic hopes in the front office that one or two pitchers from among Musgrove, Taillon, Kuhl and Williams can someday approach Cole’s level of performance.

It’s unfair to blame just the pitching. Every element on the team has contributed to the Pirates’ steady descent in the NL Central and wild-card standings.

The bats disappear more than occasionally, most recently in the past six home games when the Pirates (38-42) scored a total of nine runs.

Such a stat is difficult to overcome when the starting pitchers allow multiple runs in the first inning, something that has happened in five of the past six defeats.

The Pirates are pushing Corey Dickerson for the All-Star Game, and he’s playing well with a .301 batting average. But he has one RBI in June, batting fifth in the order most of the time.

You almost can pick any offensive number as a contributing factor to the Pirates losing 15 of their past 23 games:

• Gregory Polanco’s 66 strikeouts and .226 batting average.

• Josh Bell’s five home runs after hitting 29 in his first 1½ seasons.

• Francisco Cervelli’s 57-point drop in his batting average in less than two months, possibly linked to his recent concussion-like symptoms.

The offense perked up against the Mets, but it was just in time to cost the team money.

The Pirates scored 14 runs in three games, which is the dollar amount most tickets will be discounted during the eight-day homestand starting July 6 and leading into the All-Star break.

There is no pennant race to attract fans, and attendance is already down 27.6 percent from last season. Maybe fans turned off by losing baseball won’t be able to resist a bargain.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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