CHICAGO - AUGUST 10: J.J. Hardy #27 of the Minnesota Twins follows the flight of his solo home run in the 2nd inning against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field on August 10 2010 in Chicago Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jenifer Langosch has a preview of the Pirates' offseason here, and honestly, it looks pretty bleak. It says the Pirates will focus on starting pitching as their primary area of concern, which really just seems like pouring water into acid. Sure, the Pirates could use better starting pitchers, but good luck to them in getting good results out of whoever they end up grabbing. The more pressing problem is that the defense is horrible, and they certainly aren't going to spend on a top-tier pitcher, so if they do grab someone like Kevin Millwood or Jake Westbrook, they run the risk of having that player put up the worst ERA of his career.
Someone like Westbrook is probably the best possible pitcher on the free agent market they could reasonably end up getting, and even he depends very heavily on his infield defense and would likely be a giant flop with the Bucs if the Pirates don't upgrade there. And man - if Neal Huntington hands out an eight-figure contract to someone like Westbrook and then Westbrook doesn't succeed, the cries for Huntington's head will get even louder.
Langosch mentions the possibility of the Pirates getting "creative," by which she mostly just means adding someone in the Rule 5 draft and signing a bunch of minor league free agents, which really isn't creative and which the Pirates do every year. More interesting is the possibility that the Pirates could seek to add talent and salary through trades rather than through free agency, much they way they did with Chris Snyder a few months ago. Or they could scan the ranks of non-tenders and try to add younger talent that way (for example, Willy Aybar has shown the abilities to hit and play defense at various points in the past, and is still fairly young).
What would really be creative, though, would be breaking with the usual way of thinking about the offseason. Langosch focuses on starting pitching and a power bat for the corners, which is pretty much the menu for every Pirates offseason ever, dating back to, like, the first Bush administration. Starting pitching and first base / right field are not the primary problems with this team.
In the rotation, James McDonald, Paul Maholm and Ross Ohlendorf have all earned spots next season, Zach Duke is perfectly functional on a good defensive team (and still very much available), and Charlie Morton and Brad Lincoln still have talent. The Pirates should be able to hold down the fort with those guys, plus a couple of cheap minor league free agents, until Rudy Owens, Bryan Morris and/or Jeff Locke start forcing their way into the picture. And at the corners, a good management team should be able to get at least a functional mix-and-match going at first base and right field between whatever combination of Garrett Jones, Lastings Milledge, John Bowker, Steve Pearce and Jeff Clement is still around. And that's if they don't move Pedro Alvarez to first base.
And speaking of which, you know what would be really creative? Moving Alvarez to first base. It's going to happen eventually anyway, Neil Walker is a much better third baseman than second baseman, and as the example of the 2008 Rays shows, really good things can happen when you take a bunch of talented guys who are playing out of position and move them to positions where they're capable. The Rays moved B.J. Upton from second base to a position he could actually play (centerfield), replaced lead-gloved shortstop Brendan Harris with Jason Bartlett, and gave Evan Longoria the starting job at third base, and changed almost overnight from one of the worst defensive teams in baseball to one of the best. Glancing over the Rays' 2007 statistics, it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that their pitching was their primary problem. Easy, but wrong. The 2010 Pirates were the same way.
So, here's my wacky (read: creative) Plan A to improve the Pirates in 2011. Call the Twins, who need to shed payroll and are apparently considering non-tendering J.J. Hardy, and see what it would take to get Hardy in a trade. If he can be had without paying a huge price in prospects, trade for him and take him to arbitration. Hardy doesn't necessarily have a great defensive reputation because he's slow for a middle infielder, but he consistently ranks as a very strong defensive shortstop statistically, probably because his positioning is very good. He also isn't a nonzero offensively - he only hit six homers in 2010, but part of that was Target Field, and he already has two seasons with 24 or more homers a the age of 28.
This move would allow the Pirates to put Ronny Cedeno at second, Walker at third and Alvarez at first. Acquiring Hardy would thus seriously improve the defense at three middle infield positions (shortstop, second and third), eliminate the supposed need for a first baseman or corner outfielder, and potentially allow the Pirates to pick up a groundballing starter like Westbrook (if they feel like spending some money this offseason) without nearly the risk that it will blow up in their faces. The Bucs could then add another arm or two in the bullpen and a bunch of minor league free agent pitchers at minimal cost.
If the Pirates are willing to see themselves as a team that is deficient in defense rather than a team that is primarily deficient in pitching, then if they grab the right player (and he will be an infielder, not a starting pitcher or a corner player), he can have a domino effect on the rest of the roster that can allow them to upgrade lots of positions without a ton of personnel changes or a lot of money spent.