Neal Huntington and the rest of his front office are about to enter a very interesting offseason and it will be an unusual one for the Pirates. The Pirates enter this offseason with no glaring holes on their roster. Before anyone jumps on me there are many places that look like they could use some suring up but there are none that look like the big gapping holes we seen last year at catcher and shortstop. The Pirates will no doubt look to sure up some of these sof spots but the question becomes which ones. The Pirates do not have the resources or frankly the roster spaces needed to try and beef up every soft spot. The Pirates will almost certainly bring in a catcher to compliment McKenry and do something with the roitation and as always we are likely to see some work done to the bullpen. So putting those aside for the moment where else will the Pirates find it necessary to dedicate their resources to.
Of the other 7 positions on the field the Pirates appear set at 2B, 3B, CF and 1B/RF (whereever Jones plays). Thats leaves three positions which could use some work. The Pirates have Barmes at shortstop and he is great defender but the Pirates can’t afford another year of his weak bat but Barmes did show some positive signs near the end of the season. There is little doubt Barmes will be back as the starter but what will the Pirates do as a backup plan? Will they stick with Harrison and Mercer or pursue other alternatives? In my mind this should be a no brainer the Pirates need to bring in some sort of backup plan and looking at free agency the best bet in my mind is Macier Izturis but we shall see what the Pirates Front Office decides to do.
This leaves LF and 1B/RF as soft spots for the Pirates. Brining in extra support seems like a no brainer but its not that simple. The Pirates have Marte, Snider, Tabata, Presley and Sanchez all vying to fill these roles. It may be easy to say just to move on from some of these guys but the Pirates might not see it that way. Marte, Snider and Tabata are all young outfielders (Marte and Tabata will play next season at 24, Snider at 25). Sanchez is the most established of the bunch having two good seasons on his record. Presley is probably the easiest one to ignore here but he has an option remaing and has the look of a good 4th outfielder which has some value. The Pirates front office absolutely has to be thinking of bringing somebody in to serve as a backup plan should Marte, Snider and/or Tabata falter. I mean Jones can do that but then that sort of makes the backup plan Sanchez and how much faith do you want to put in him coming off a down season?
For my money how the Pirates handle the quintent of Marte, Snider, Tabata, Presley and Sanchez is the most intriguing part of the Pirates offseason. It seems like a fairly safe bet the Pirates will do something at catcher, the rotation and the bullpen and whether they add a bench middle infielder or continue with the young players probably has little overall impact but what the Pirates choose to do here could reshape the team. I think the most likely sceanrio is the Pirates stand pat with Marte in LF, Snider in RF, Tabata on the bench, Presley in AAA and Sanchez serving as a platoon partner for Jones and the backup plan but it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Pirates go a different route. Tabata with the good OBP skills he has shown in his carrer could warrant another look as the leadoff hitter. Marte with his plate discipline issues could warrant more time in AAA. Sanchez could show something that suggests he is back in 2010/2011 form which would probably force the Pirates to start him at 1B and send Jones to RF. The Pirates could opt to send Jones to RF and acquire a 1B. The Pirates could opt to bring in a leadoff hitter and play him in the outfield leaving only one starting spot availabe to these five. The Pirates could even opt to trade one or two of these five or who knows maybe even non-tender Sanchez or Presley. There is a hundred ways the Pirates front office could play this and how they choose to do so is likely the largest unknown variable that will shape the 2013 team. The other additions will of course matter as well but I think we have a reasonable idea of how the Pirates will likely handle those situations. Here, I don’t think we really do. It should be fun to follow this offseason.
Heading into this offseason the Pirates seem to have a lot of positions set on the 25 man roster but that obviously doesn’t mean that there are not spots that could and should be upgraded. Trying to upgrade these positions the same ways as in year’s past (signing middling free agents) is probably not the best way to solve these problems as is evident by the failures of the last several years. So a new direction is needed and that could possibly include trades, NRI signings, Rule V draft, internal solutions, international signing, etc. My preferred strategy for the Pirates this offseason is to be minimally active in traditional free agency and instead focus on finding players through other means. Still free agency can not be entirely ignored and the idea of going for just one upper level free agent should also be considered. With all that being said I have found six positions that the Pittsburgh Pirates would be well served to upgrade. So in no particular order the positions are:
1. Starting Pitcher
5. Corner Outfield
Now I will go over the type of player I believe the Pirates should be looking for at each position and I’ll give the best fit of the available free agents and where necessary I’ll give an example of the type of player the Pirates should look to acquire via a trade. Again I’ll reiterate I’m not necessarily advocating acquiring these players just giving an example of the type the Pirates should be looking for.
Starting Pitcher: The way I see it the Pirates have only AJ Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez locked into the rotation to begin next season. James McDonald should also probably be in there some where but his end of the season struggles make him a question mark. Karstens is the other obvious candidate but he has durability/injury issues. The rest of the candidates, Locke, McPherson, Leroux, VandenHurk, Wilson, etc seem best suited for 5th starter or depth duty for now. So with three question marks of some variety in the rotation starting pitcher is an obvious need. In fact if the Pirates decide to go the route of one decent sized free agent signing I hope it is in the rotation as a Gavin Floyd or Edwin Jackson type could do a lot to help stabilize the rotation. However I am advocating different strategies this season so a trade for a good starter would be a good thing to consider as would a signing of a high upside risky pitcher. For example the pitchers I see fitting into this category are Francisco Liriano, Ervin Santana and Scott Baker. All 3 of those pitchers have a ton of upside and could get a reasonably large sum in free agency but conversely all 3 have significant faults which could drop their respective prices making them prime targets for the Pirates.
Bullpen: The only two players who should be considered near locks for the Pirates bullpen are Jared Hughes and Tony Watson. I also expect Bryan Morris and Chris Leroux to be part of the pen but they aren’t guarantees but we will say the Pirates are looking for 3 players to fill out the pen. Hanrahan of course is someone who could take one spot but I think the Pirates will and should trade him, hopefully doing so fills one of the other holes. Resigning Grilli should be another move the Pirates consider but I wouldn’t go with a big salary for him, I think my max would be 2 years at 4 million per season. To fill the other spots I think the Pirates should do what they have done the past few seasons which is scour for players like Jose Veras or Juan Cruz or even select someone in the Rule V draft. Waiver claims and low-level trades could also work. It is always difficult to predict which relievers will be available for low salary contracts or NRI but some names I like are Kyle Farnsworth, Randy Choate and Jon Rauch. Internally guys like Justin Wilson, Duke Welker and even Chris Resop are candidates to fill out the bullpen.
Catcher: Let me start by saying unequivocally that Rod Barajas should not be brought back at any price. Now as for McKenry he is a decent part of a catching tandem but give him anymore than 90 starts and I have a feeling things won’t be looking so good. So obviously some help is needed for him. Eric Fryer and Tony Sanchez are the internal options but Sanchez could use more time in AAA and Fryer well just isn’t that good. There are bound to be some available catchers that can be acquired via a trade such as Hank Conger and the Pirates should seriously consider that route but if they want to go the free agent route there is a pretty decent free agent market for catchers. Napoli is obviously the best available but is not someone the Pirates should ideally locate a lot of money to. Other catchers such as Russell Martin, Kelly Shoppach and David Ross make sense as well. I wouldn’t rule out a trade here but I think I would prefer going after a catcher like Shoppach and using the trade resources to go after some of the other needs.
Shortstop: Clint Barmes wasn’t as bad this season as most Pirates fans would lead you to believe. He had an awful April and May but was exactly what the Pirates should have expected to get the remainder of the season. With all that being said Barmes production shouldn’t have locked down the shortstop job for next season. The Pirates could look at free agency for an answer but the pickings are slim. Stephen Drew and Jhonny Peralta headline the class but Peralta may not even reach free agency and Drew is coming off a season argubly worse than Barmes. Still something needs to be done to address the shortstop problem because at the very least another solution is going to be needed in 2014. If the Pirates choose to go the trade route I hope they look for someone who has good on base skills and could hit near the top of the lineup. Players like that are rare from the shortstop position and are usually pretty expensive in terms of salary and what it would cost to acquire them via trade. One name that sticks out to me who by all accounts isn’t available but I imagine could be for a good offer is Jed Lowrie. Lowrie can play good defense and has consistently put up a good OBP. If the Pirates can acquire a shortstop in that mold that is the way to go otherwise when considering the options available through free agency sticking with Barmes and adding in more Jordy Mercer to prepare him for 2013 is probably the way to go.
Corner Outfield: The toughest need to really explain. Let me start by saying I am assuming Garrett Jones will split time with Gaby Sanchez at 1B meaning he will only play in the outfield sparingly if at all. If the Pirates decide to make him a OF the need for a corner outfielder greatly diminishes but the need for a 1B to compliment Gaby Sanchez increases, however I’ll ignore that possibility for now. The Pirates production from the corner outfield this season sans Jones was awful. The Pirates received the 2nd worst offensive production from LF this season and were only marginally decent in RF thanks to Jones playing there about half the time. This would seem an obvious spot to upgrade but yet it isn’t. The Pirates have 4 players vying to man these two positions with 3 of them being 24 years old (1 of the 3 will be 25 for all of next season). The Pirates have a ton of youth and potential to fill these 2 positions in Marte, Snider, Tabata and Presley but not much actual success to go on. I would assume Marte has got to be given a chance in one corner due to the fact he has the highest upside of the bunch and had the best season of the four last year. The other spot is where the need comes into play Snider will be playing next season at 25 years old and Tabata will be playing most of it at 24 years old. The two of them look like they could make a decent platoon in RF but with the uncertainty in LF this is not something the Pirates should count on. If the Pirates wanted to make a big splash for an offensive player this is where they should do it. A player like Angel Pagan makes a lot of sense as he could come in play a OF corner and hit atop the order. However due to the youth and potential the Pirates have here I’d rather see a big splash investment go to the pitching side and this be solved with a less splashy option. I envision the type of addition that makes the most sense is a veteran outfield who has good on base skills and who wouldn’t mind being a 4th outfielder but is capable of being a borderline starting option. The two players in free agency that best matches this description are Juan Pierre and Reed Johnson, however I am not too enthused about either of them. Just to give an example of the type of player I’m talking about I’ll mention David DeJesus. Now I doubt the Cubs will actively be looking to move DeJesus but a player like him capable of playing all 3 positions in the OF and maintaining a .340+ OBP is exactly what the Pirates should be looking for. If they can’t find one and they don’t choose to make a big splash I think the best option is to play Marte in LF, have Snider and Tabata platoon in RF, have Presley available in AAA and be open to using Jones in the outfield once again. That may not seem like a great option but neither is bringing in a middling free agent.
Bench: If there is one theme to what the Pirates need to do this offseason it is they have to get deeper. Deeper in the rotation, the bullpen, the lineup, the minor leagues and the bench. This past season the two Pirates who received the most pinch hit appearances were Josh Harrison and Jeff Clement. Both of them struggled and Clement for one shouldn’t be back. Going into next season the Pirates bench figures to include a backup catcher say McKenry, T Sanchez or an outside addition, Gaby Sanchez, a young middle infielder say Mercer, Holt or Harrison and a 4th outfielder say Snider, Tabata or an outside acquisition. That leaves one final spot which this past season belonged to Harrison. Harrison should absolutely be given a chance to win a spot on the bench but only the reserve middle infielder job. The Pirates should allocate some resources to improving this spot with offense being a key focus. Just looking at free agency the Pirates could choose to go for a pure pinch hitter and sign a 1B like Jason Giambi or Carlos Lee. Or since they seem to have a desire to carry at least 4 middle infielders at all times a guys like Maicer Izturis or Adam Kennedy could be pursued. Or they could carry 5 outfielders on the roster (which with Jones on the team seems like overkill) and get a player like Austin Kearns, Raul Ibanez or Reed Johnson. The other option is of course to go with a Mike Fontenot or Jeff Baker type who can play all over the field but that would likely sacrifice offensive production. It is very difficult to speculate on who else the Pirates may be able to acquire here so I’ll just leave it at that but something needs to be done to improve the Pirates bench.