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Pirates likely to be priced out of NL Central race in coming years

The St. Louis Cardinals have been the one constant over the past decade in the National League Central.

As the story of the division plays out, they’ve had a leading role in the screenplay. It’s the antagonists who seem to change every couple of years like a re-imagined sequel to the original movie.

For a while the Cincinnati Reds played the part of the bad guy. Then it was the Milwaukee Brewers. Over the past couple of years it was the Pittsburgh Pirates who tried to take on that role.

Now it looks like another change is in the works. The Pirates are threatened with the distinct possibility of losing their co-starring role to the rising Chicago Cubs.

Although the Pirates managed to hold off the Wee Bears in 2015, finishing with the second-best record not only in the Central Division but also all of Major League Baseball to St. Louis, it seems the Pirates are going to have a hard time keeping up in the future as the Cubs are on the rise.

Although there has been something of a resurgence in interest from the ticket buying public, the Pittsburgh team has always been a small budget club. Boosted by young talent over the years, the Pirates are likely to have trouble keeping up with the deeper-pocketed teams in Chicago and St. Louis as their roster gets more and more expensive.

The Pirates saw their payroll increase dramatically from 2013 to 2015. But, despite a hike of nearly $19 million, they barely topped $90 million in the recently-completed season. That’s 25th among the 30 MLB teams. Only eight clubs have payrolls of less than $100 million. The young Houston Astros are the only other sub $100 million team to make the post-season.

They’re not going to get off nearly so cheap in 2016 if the Pirates plan to keep the band together.

According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Pirates are committed to spending a little bit more than $50 million on players already contract in 2016. That’s before arbitration cases and free agents are addressed. And that money will be substantial.

Notable players who are due big raises through arbitration include:

▪ Neil Walker is in his fourth trip through arbitration. Walker has been a key player for the Pirates for years and is a fan favorite as a Pittsburgh native. But, after making $8 million last year and being due a significant raise through arbitration, the Pirates might be forced to let him walk. Estimates are that Walker could get $10.7 million in arbitration.

▪ Pedro Alvarez, Mark Melancon, Travis Snider, Chris Stewart, Travis Ishikawa and Francisco Cervelli will have their third go at arbitration. That’s going to be an expensive proposition if the Pirates choose to keep them all.

▪ Vance Worley, Jared Hughes and Tony Watson make their second arbitration bid.

▪ Jeff Locke and Jordy Mercer will make their first run through the arbitration process.

Aramis Ramirez and pitchers JA Happ and AJ Burnett are free agents. The first two are expected to retire. While they Pirates will likely not replace Ramirez, who was a hired gun added at the trade deadline, it seems they’ll need at least one quality free agent pitcher to replace Happ and Burnett which is going to be a pricey proposition.

In a nutshell, unless the Pirates boldly push past the $100 million mark for the first time in franchise history, they’re going to have to let their pitching and their offense suffer.

That could open a door for the Cardinals and Cubs to pull away in the NL Central in 2016. But, while they could run up impressive win totals with the Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers and a weakening Pirates team to beat up on, the potential top two teams in the NL could end up facing each other early in the playoffs with one of the teams, despite a better record than another division winner, forced to take the wildcard path to the post season.