Those of you who were around last year know that I'm rarely optimistic about the Bucs' chances of improving on the free agent market, given that free agents tend to be old, the Pirates tend not to spend much, and the most desirable players tend not to want to play in Pittsburgh. With a 79-win season this year, there's some hope that the last of those might change, but that will probably happen slowly, and Pittsburgh still won't be the destination of choice for top-notch free agents. I'd love it if the Pirates could sign a bunch of stars, but realistically, that simply won't happen. The Bucs will likely take a shot or two at top-notch players, and they'll likely fail to sign them. So this is what I think is a realistic look at what the Pirates will do this offseason. If they end up doing better, that would be great.
All this assumes, by the way, that the Pirates' current management team stays in place.
Let's look at the current team, beginning with arbitration-eligible players:
Jones, McDonald and Walker are locks to be tendered, and Karstens probably should be, unless there's some grand plan or enormous medical problem we don't yet know about. Sanchez and Resop will be relatively cheap (Sanchez will probably be around $2 million, Resop probably around $1.2 million), so they'll probably be tendered, although I'm not sure how comfortable Resop should be, given that he only struck out 5.62 batters per nine innings this year. Morton will likely be non-tendered, due to his injury status, although I imagine the Pirates will try to sign him to a minor-league deal.
That leaves Hanrahan, who will probably make about $7 million next year. Non-tendering him really isn't an option, but my guess is that the Pirates will try to trade him.
Here are the free agents:
The only player you'd really want the Pirates to bring back would be Grilli, but the cost would probably be prohibitive. I think all five of these players will be gone.
Combine the players the Pirates will likely take to arbitration with players the Bucs already control, and the depth chart looks something like this:
Catcher: Michael McKenry, Tony Sanchez
First base: Garrett Jones, Gaby Sanchez
Second base: Neil Walker, Josh Harrison, Brock Holt
Shortstop: Clint Barmes, Jordy Mercer
Third base: Pedro Alvarez
Outfield: Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Travis Snider, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley
Rotation: A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Kyle McPherson, Jeff Locke, Rick van den Hurk
Bullpen: Joel Hanrahan, Chris Resop, Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Chris Leroux, Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris
The Pirates appear set at first, second, third and in the outfield. Jones and Gaby Sanchez should be used pretty much exclusively as platoon partners at first base -- use them correctly, and they should work out well. In the outfield, the Pirates pretty much have to dance with who they brought, unless they're going to go for some out-of-nowhere signing of a star. McCutchen and Marte are clear starters, obviously. I have little faith in Presley, but the Pirates should be able to get one good starter out of Snider or Tabata. Personally, I hope Snider arrives in camp healthy and shows what he can do -- I didn't really understand the way the Bucs handled him down the stretch, and there's still potential there.
That leaves catcher, shortstop and the pitching staff. The Pirates need to find a catcher to pair with McKenry. As we've discussed here, David Ross would make a bunch of sense, although it's more likely he winds up back with the Braves. A trade for someone like Hank Conger might also work.
Clint Barmes had a better year than he's gotten credit for, but it would still be a mistake for the Pirates to go into Spring Training penciling him in for 500 at bats. Barmes' defense really is very good, but the Bucs need another viable option. Someone like Ronny Cedeno would actually be perfect, since he'd be cheap and wouldn't expect more than a couple hundred at bats, but there's no way the Pirates will sign Cedeno again. (Besides, that move, while it would make sense in terms of allocating resources, would make Pirates fans tear their hair out.) Maybe, then, the Pirates could aim somewhat higher and get Stephen Drew on an incentive-laden deal, or perhaps Jhonny Peralta (if the Tigers don't pick up his option). Again, a trade might be a possibility here -- if the Bucs can get a young shortstop for Hanrahan, that would be great.
The Pirates' rotation should be the most interesting area to watch this offseason, since there are a bunch of variables in play. One is that it's not guaranteed that Karstens will be tendered. Another is the emergence of Kyle McPherson as a potentially viable candidate -- I'd be downright psyched if he won a job out of Spring Training. Then there's Gerrit Cole, who should be ready around June.
I tend to be conservative with non-tenders because I don't trust the Bucs to acquire good talent on the free-agent market, but if the Pirates can non-tender Karstens and then splurge on a really good pitcher (Edwin Jackson again, maybe? Jake Peavy?), that would be great. If the Pirates were to make a splash this offseason, I would expect it to be for a starting pitcher, because the market there is at least decent. Unfortunately, there's no real track record of the Pirates being able to sign players of Jackson or Peavy's caliber. Francisco Liriano would be cheaper, and signing him might be a sneaky high-upside move. In any case, I'd probably start by tendering Karstens, then trying to find a good starter to add to the mix. If nothing else, Karstens would be valuable as a swingman. And if they do tender Karstens, there's really no need for them to acquire a starting pitcher unless they're going to acquire someone who has a chance to be really good.
There are a lot of moving parts in the bullpen, too, given that Grilli will likely be gone and the Pirates will be likely to aggressively shop Hanrahan. Without Grilli and Hanrahan, the bullpen doesn't look to be a strength next year, but relievers are cheap and are generally willing to sign with the Bucs, so Neal Huntington ought to be able to come up with something. There's also some hope that someone like Justin Wilson or Vic Black will emerge as a good late-inning option. Regardless, I expect the Pirates will sign at least a couple relievers to cheap deals this offseason.