With the GM Meetings kicking off today, and the Winter Meetings less than a month away, the free agent market should start to pick up. General Manager Neal Huntington is in Florida for the next two days, which gives General Managers the opportunity to meet face to face and be able to start discussing potential trades.
If the Pirates don’t make any moves this offseason, the club is projected to have a payroll just under $61 M on Opening Day in 2013. That number is the highest in franchise history, as well as a jump from the $30.16M payroll (before arbitration cases) they had going into last offseason. Owner Bob Nutting wouldn’t give an estimate as to how much money they will have to spend on free agents to improve the club this offseason, but he remains committed to increasing the payroll.
“We’re obviously not going to pick a number today,” Nutting said. “My expectation is that we have grown the payroll and we will continue to do that. Part of that will be organically inside the organization. Part of it is going to be bringing in players. We showed that last year with the [A.J.] Burnett acquisition. That was a stretch. And that was a darn good one. It played out well.”
But don’t expect the Pirates to make any flashy statement signings this offseason either. While fans may be asking to see the Pittsburgh prove they are “all in” by signing a big deal, the organization will stay away from any statement moves, and look to what can help the club progress forward.
“If you think about some of the past ‘make a statement’ moves, some of those have been some of the really bad decisions if you look back far enough,” Nutting said. “I don’t see us becoming reactionary. I believe as long as we’re continuing to make progress, it really is a contrast process of adjustment. I think you’re going to see that through this off-season, building on the progress that we’ve made.”
The 2012 free agent market is not a strong one. The Pirates are actively perusing a catcher to fill the void of Rod Barajas, who they declined his $3.5 M option. Whether it’s a No. 1 or a No. 2 backstop, and what kind of role Michael McKenry will have is still to be determined. The club also could be looking at a back-end starter for their rotation. A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald are locks for the staff in 2013, while rookies Kyle McPherson and Jeff Locke will battle for a spot in spring training. With a hefty arbitration raise with Jeff Karstens (projected for $3.8 M), the right-hander could be non-tendered and the club could pursue a veteran to insert into his spot the rotation.
“The free agent market, I think we know it’s not a great place for us to source talent,” Nutting said. “It’s a difficult market place. But at the same time, we’ve had some very good successes. If you look at A.J. Burnett, if you look at [Jason] Grilli. If you go back a bit and look at Garrett Jones. We’ve made some very good talent acquisitions. And what we’ve been digging into was, ‘how did we get it right, when we got it right? What did we miss when we got it wrong? And how do we improve our hit ratio?’”
While the Pirates have seen some hits in the free agent market, they’ve also seen some big misses. Some notable ones just this past season were Nate McLouth, Casey McGehee and Erik Bedard. Nutting is diving into the reasons behind why some worked, and the reasons why some didn’t.
“We have absolutely looked at the way we’re acquiring talent. We have absolutely looked through player by players over the past five years,” Nutting said. “What kinds of roles that we can bring people in to play, the timing of signing a free agent, where do you have a deeper market early in the season, versus being able to get people later in the season. We’ve looked at all of those aspects and there is no question that the process will change, will evolve, will improve.”
“Those are not words that imply ‘we are blowing it up, or starting over’, those are words that we really took a deep look into, literally player by player, every other player who was signed in that position, in that year. What did we see? What did we miss? Where were we consistently good? Where were we consistently bad? We can not afford from performance or financially to screw these things up. We have to be extremely realistic in terms of the evaluation. We’ve taken some important lessons away from it.”
Nutting said he will not have a bigger hand in the free agent market moving forward and continues to support the front office, who he said that he will not make any changes to despite the late season collapse in 2012.
“I believe my role needs to be getting the right people, putting systems in place and holding them accountable,” he said. “We need to have experts. We need to have great data analysis. We need to have more scouts with a strong sense of the gut, the feel that he’s a gamer, he can play, he can contribute. We need to have those pieces.”
“Neal’s marching orders have been to build a championship in Pittsburgh. We’re stronger than we were. We’re not where we need to be. We need to make necessary adjustments and improve this club. We need to do it quickly and effectively as we can.”