Offseason Outlook: Pittsburgh Pirates

After their first winning season and playoff berth in 21 years, the Pirates find themselves in an enviable position, with a fairly sturdy roster and a strong farm system. It remains to be seen whether they will play it safe this offseason, heading into camp next year with a roster similar to last year's, or whether they'll make headlines with a splashy move or two.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses)

Contract Options

  • Wandy Rodriguez, SP: $13MM player option (Astros will pay $5.5MM if Rodriguez accepts)

Free Agents

Whenever a small-market team follows 20 straight losing seasons with an unexpected 94-win campaign, you know what the narrative will be: They're the young, scrappy Davids who somehow managed to compete with Goliath. When it comes to the Pirates, that's true, to an extent — their top player, Andrew McCutchen, didn't turn 27 until October, and they also got plenty of mileage from homegrown talents Starling Marte, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Gerrit Cole, Tony Watson and Justin Wilson.

For an upstart team, though, the 2013 Pirates also got a ton of help from veterans, including several who had very high profiles earlier in their careers. A.J. Burnett quietly was one of the best pitchers in the National League, leading the NL in K/9 and ground ball percentage. Russell Martin anchored the Pirates' pitching staff and was fantastic behind the plate, rating 23 runs above average on defense, according to FanGraphs. Francisco Liriano was one of the best bargain-basement signings of the 2012-13 offseason. And the top two relievers in the Pirates' bullpen, Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon, were dominant.

While the Pirates may not have been that young, though, they're well-positioned to compete in the near future, even if it will be tough to repeat their 94-win 2013 performance. There's no reason to think McCutchen won't continue to be one of the best position players in baseball, and Marte should continue to post star-caliber seasons alongside him, mostly thanks to his defense. Cole looked more and more like an ace as his debut season went on, and fellow top pick Jameson Taillon will likely soon join him in the Pirates' rotation. The 2013 Pirates had a solid, ground-ball-heavy pitching staff that was aided by terrific fielding (thanks in part to very frequent defensive shifts) and an underrated offense. That probably won't change much in 2014.

The short-term problem for the Pirates, though, will be how to replicate or replace the performances they got from veterans in 2013. Martin and Liriano will be back, but they're unlikely to combine for 7.2 WAR again. Likewise, Grilli and Melancon will have a tough time again combining for 4.0 WAR. And Burnett might not be a Pirate at all — he's still deciding whether to return for another season or to retire. The Pirates also stand to lose Marlon Byrd, who provided a boost to the their offense after an August trade with the Mets.

Offensively, the Pirates are set for 2014 at catcher (Martin), second base (Walker), third base (Alvarez) and two of the outfield positions (McCutchen and Marte). At shortstop, Clint Barmes is a free agent, but newcomer Jordy Mercer easily outhit him in 2013, while also providing credible defense. It will be tough for the Pirates to do better than Mercer this offseason, so their best bet might be to simply re-sign Barmes or acquire another defensive-minded player to serve as Mercer's backup and occasionally give Walker days off against lefties.

That leaves right field and first base. At right field, there is, again, a reasonable case for standing pat — Jose Tabata came on strong at the end of the 2013 season, quietly producing 1.1 WAR in a part-time role. Tabata is defensively limited and offensively erratic, but given his relative youth and the possibility that top prospect Gregory Polanco will occupy the position beginning in late 2014 or early 2015, it might not make sense for the Bucs to make a multiyear commitment to a free agent outfielder, unless he's a superstar. And if Tabata flops, the Pirates could also turn to Andrew Lambo, who hit 33 home runs across three levels in 2013.

First base is where a splashy offseason acquisition would make the most sense — Garrett Jones and Justin Morneau weren't particularly inspiring in 2013, and Gaby Sanchez is most useful as a lefty-killer. Unfortunately, there are few big names to pursue, at least on the free agent market. The Pirates apparently were never serious players for Jose Dariel Abreu, meaning Mike Napoli is the only player on the market who would clearly be a large upgrade. Players like Corey Hart and James Loney (in free agency) and Ike Davis (on the trade market) might also be possibilities, but they aren't great ones.

Any changes to the Pirates' 2014 rotation will likely hinge on whether A.J. Burnett returns. Burnett has said that, if he continues playing, he wants to stay in Pittsburgh, but he's also mulling retirement. If he does stay, it might be for a one-year deal right around the qualifying offer value of $14.1MM, whether or not the Pirates actually extend a qualifying offer. If he returns, he'll join Cole and Liriano atop the Pirates' rotation. Charlie Morton should slot into one of the back two spots, and Wandy Rodriguez, who finished the 2013 season on the disabled list, will likely pick up his player option. That leaves Jeff Locke, who faded badly down the stretch last year, as an insurance policy.

The Pirates also control most of their bullpen. Grilli and Melancon are set to return, along with top lefties Watson and Wilson and, assuming the Pirates tender him, righty Vin Mazzaro. Righty Stolmy Pimentel, who arrived along with Melancon last offseason's Joel Hanrahan trade with the Red Sox, will be out of options, and he pitched well in both the minors and the big leagues last year, so he could occupy another bullpen spot, perhaps along with fellow righty Bryan Morris.

The Pirates' farm system is also well-stocked, with Taillon and Polanco leading the way. The Bucs also have a well-regarded infielder in Alen Hanson, a tall righty who posted 13.3 K/9 in Tyler Glasnow, and two 2013 first-round picks who had good debuts in Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire.

The Pirates' strong system may turn out to be important this winter. The Bucs' attendance has taken a huge leap forward in the past few years, from 1.6MM in 2010 to almost 2.3MM in 2013, and owner Bob Nutting recently spoke about significantly increasing the team's payroll next season. There are, however, few good free agent options at the Pirates' clearest positions of need, particularly first base. So it wouldn't be a huge shock if the Pirates were involved in some sort of blockbuster trade this offseason, trading away prospects in return for a star who can play one of the corner spots. Giancarlo Stanton or Chase Headley might make sense.

There ultimately isn't much point in trying to predict specifics. But it wouldn't be at all surprising to see the Pirates do something dramatic this offseason. Their first winning campaign since 1992 is now in the books. The atmosphere at PNC Park during the Pirates' 6-2 win over the Reds in their one-game playoff was unlike anything the Pirates (or, frankly, lots of baseball teams) have seen in decades. It's an important time for baseball in Pittsburgh, and the team has money to spend. GM Neal Huntington isn't the type to make a huge move just because he's expected to, but if the right one presents itself, well, now is the time.

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