Originally written on Raise the Jolly Roger!  |  Last updated 10/22/14
It’s a shame the Pirates came up a game short in the NLDS and couldn’t advance in the playoffs, but one thing that has struck me since then is that fans hardly seem to be devastated. Sure, it hurts watching the NLCS, knowing the Pirates were one swing of the bat away from being there (against a Dodgers team that is ice cold at the plate all of a sudden). No, we don’t know that the Bucs will have another opportunity like that anytime soon. But there certainly seems to be an overwhelming sentiment that there is more to come for the Pirates, and that they weren’t just some one-year Cinderella team. The main reason for that is the simple fact that the vast majority of the team will be back next year. This offseason will be unlike any in the past 20 years; the Pirates will be legitimately viewed as contenders, and fans will be anticipating another playoff run. To get to that point, the Bucs have several key decisions to make, even though the core of the team will remain in place for 2014. Starting pitching Francisco Liriano is signed for 2014 (his option already vested). Gerrit Cole is under team control for the next six years. Charlie Morton will be in his third arbitration year and will be tendered. That’s a solid three that will be there for sure.  Wandy Rodriguez has a player option, which he will almost certainly exercise. His health is uncertain, but if he is able to pitch, he will be in there. The big question mark is A.J. Burnett. As you know, his contract is up and he has discussed contemplating retirement. He has also discussed a desire to return to Pittsburgh if he does not retire. Burnett stunk in his playoff start and did not rack up a lot of wins, but  he still had a terrific season – one of the best of his career. (His 3.30 ERA was a career low, and he led the NL in K/9). He clearly has plenty left in the tank, and if the Pirates can bring him back for another season, they would almost surely benefit. A one year deal probably makes the most sense, and if the Pirates offer up $14.1M (which is probably right around what he would be worth), they’d get a compensation draft pick if he signs elsewhere. I suspect the Bucs will make a fair offer and he will take it, but there’s certainly some extra reason to doubt it after a couple of minor spats late in the season and the decision to skip him in Game 5. So ideally, the Pirates can enter the 2014 season with a rotation of Liriano, Burnett, Cole, Rodriguez, and Morton. That would look great. The next two options would probably be Jeff Locke and Brandon Cumpton – both of whom deserve a shot at being a 5th starter. That group should cover it even if Rodriguez remains injured and Burnett leaves, but there are other decent depth options behind them as well. Oh, and don’t forget about Jameson Taillon. He should be on track to follow the same schedule Gerrit Cole was on this year – start out in AAA, hopefully pitch fairly well, and come up in the middle of the summer. Even without Burnett, the starting pitching doesn’t look to be a huge concern in the offseason. If A.J. goes elsewhere and Rodriguez’s status does not look good, they will want to look for one additional quality arm, but the Bucs would be better off looking to improve the offense first and foremost. Infield Russell Martin is under contract in 2014, and Tony Sanchez should be his backup. John Buck is a free agent and is as good as gone. Michael McKenry (arb eligible) may or may not stick around, but Sanchez should probably be ahead of him on the depth chart –especially with an eye towards 2015 when Martin will be gone. First base is the spot where the Pirates really need to focus on this winter. What is normally one of the most offense-friendly positions on the field was a major weakness all season, and there aren’t any obvious candidates to fix the problem. Justin Morneau will be entering free agency, and while he got on base at a decent clip, it’s hard to imagine the Pirates re-signing him after his very disappointing zero home runs in September and October. Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez are both arb-eligible, but tendering both would result in a pretty expensive cost (almost $10M) for a duo that has proven to be unproductive as a platoon team (Sanchez got the job done against left handers, but neither could do much against right handers, who make up the majority of opponents). Bringing back Sanchez would be fine if there was a viable platoon partner that could hit RHP’s better than Jones did, but the more ideal scenario would be finding someone that could just play every day. The problem is that the free agent market is pretty thin. One intriguing (though very risky/expensive option) would be Cuban free agent Jose Abreu, but if that’s not in the cards, the Pirates are going to have to make a trade or deal with more below-average production from this spot. They don’t have much in the minors at first base – Alex Dickerson had a nice season in AA, but hardly projects as a big league starter for next year. Neil Walker is arb-eligible and will be back to play second. As usual, there have been some rumblings about extension talks with him. Walker’s the hometown favorite, of course, but that wouldn’t really make much sense for the Pirates unless it was extremely team friendly (or only bought out arbitration years).   Walker didn’t play nearly as much against lefties towards the end of the season, and the Pirates should continue to give at bats to Josh Harrison or Jordy Mercer (if he’s not at short) when a LHP is on the mound. Mercer will probably enter 2014 as the starting shortstop. Clint Barmes’ contract is up, and even though Mercer isn’t as good defensively as Barmes, he proved himself to be adequate with the glove while much better with the bat. That said, the Pirates may not feel comfortable making him an everyday starter. The free agent market is bleak, as usual, and I suspect they’ll look to bring back Barmes (for a much cheaper contract than his 2012-2013 deal) as a part time player. They could go in to next year splitting time like they did late this season, with Mercer (hopefully) getting more playing time as the year goes on. Pedro Alvarez will enter his first arb year (he can and will decline his $700K option to go to arbitration), meaning he will probably make a good amount of money. An extension may make more sense in his case, but his agent is Scott Boras and buying out anything beyond arbitration years would still be pretty risky for the Pirates. I’d go for an extra year or two at a somewhat reasonable price, but there’s no such thing as that with Boras.  For 2014, Pedro will obviously be the every day 3B, although the Pirates should look to sit him against lefties more often. Outfield Andrew McCutchen will be in center and Starling Marte will be in left for the forseeable future. The Bucs have that duo locked up through 2018. They may look in to trying to extend Marte, but there’s plenty of time for that – no rush. Right field is the only unknown. Jose Tabata is under contract thanks to that fairly cheap long term deal he signed a few seasons ago. Going with him would probably be just fine (Tabata was actually pretty productive in 2013), but it’s awfully hard to look past Marlon Byrd after his excellent work with the Pirates. Everybody will want to re-sign Byrd, but things get a little tricky here. He is 36 and his tremendous 2013 season came seemingly out of nowhere (it’s hard to imagine he’d keep it up for another year). He definitely seemed to like Pittsburgh and sounded very open to staying, but he’ll probably get a lot of money thrown at him this winter. If a team offers him decent money and more than one year, he’d almost certainly be gone, because with one of their best prospects (Gregory Polanco) nearing the majors, there is no way the Pirates should give Byrd (or any other OF) more than one year. A one year deal would be fine, but may not be the best use of resources depending on how much it would cost and how much faith you have in Tabata. Bullpen: There shouldn’t be much turnover in the Shark Tank. Jason Grilli is under contract for another year and the rest of the main group is under control for quite a while. Mark Melancon and Vin Mazzaro will head to arbitration, while Tony Watson, Bryan Morris, Jeanmar Gomez, and Justin Wilson are still pre-arb. Look for Neal Huntington to make some under the radar additions (like Gomez and Mazzaro last winter) that may eventually have an impact, but there doesn’t seem to be much reason to deviate from this group, especially with some decent depth in AAA. A trade of Grilli might make sense in the same way the Hanrahan deal did last season if a team is willing to offer some quality pieces, but I don’t see that happening this time around. Bench: The backup catcher (probably Sanchez), Tabata (assuming he isn’t the starter), and Josh Harrison (Mr. Super Utility – still pre-arb) are three pretty good bets to take bench spots. If Barmes is retained, add Barmes/Mercer to that mix. That leaves one more spot, and there’s no sense trying to predict the 25th roster spot in October. It will probably depend on what the Bucs do with the first base situation. Offseason priorities: First base, right field (Byrd?), re-signing Burnett (or getting another arm if not), and bench/bullpen depth upgrades That’s really not a bad list. Solving the first base problem will be difficult, but the Pirates have more resources than usual now (financial and prospects). There’s a very reasonable chance of Burnett and Byrd returning. It shouldn’t be a challenge to attract players to come to Pittsburgh anymore.  The payroll is going to increase both through arbitration and hopefully through some of these moves, and the Pirates should continue to move closer to the middle of the pack in that area. More importantly, there’s no reason at all the Bucs can’t assemble another competitive team in 2014. The pitching appears to be in good shape, and the holes in the offense are clearly defined with a chance to fix them. I’m looking forward to seeing what they are able to do.
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