Much of the talk surrounding this offseason so far has focused on retaining or extending existing Pirates players -- whether the Pirates should re-sign guys like A.J. Burnett and Marlon Byrd, and whether they should extend Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker.
Certainly, there are cases to be made for some of these moves. And at the right price, of course, any of them would be fine. Personally, I favor signing Burnett at a reasonable price. But it's worth thinking -- really, mostly because we've never had cause to consider it before -- about how attached the Pirates should be to their 2013 team. It was the best Pirates team in decades. But it doesn't follow that the best course of action is to lock up all its players.
For a cautionary tale, let's look at the 2002 Angels. Led by Jarrod Washburn, a balanced lineup and a dominant bullpen, they won 99 games and the World Series. GM Bill Stoneman said his goal the following offseason was to keep the team together the best he could.
"By and large, the core's together," Stoneman says. "The fans have always liked the core ... and of course now that we've been able to win the World Series, they love the core. So it was really our intention to keep them together. We're still a fairly young club, so why shouldn't we keep them together (as long as we can afford to)?"
So he did, and the 2003 Angels were virtually the same team. Every single everyday player came back, and the five main pitchers in their rotation (Washburn, Ramon Ortiz, John Lackey, Aaron Sele and Kevin Appier) were exactly the same. Most of the relievers were the same, too. And the Angels won 78 games and finished third. It turned out that Sele and Appier were getting older, Ortiz wasn't actually very good, Washburn's 2002 had been a career season, and several players in their 2002 lineup couldn't continue posting 3-WAR seasons. The Angels returned to the playoffs in 2004 after they decided they'd had enough and got serious about improving, signing Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Guillen.
If the Pirates were to keep their entire 2013 roster for the 2014 season, it probably would not produce 94 wins again. Good teams tend to regress if they aren't updated, like houses falling into disrepair. Intelligently-run teams know this. It's hard to imagine, say, the Rays or Athletics getting attached to one of their winning teams the way the Angels did. It will not pay for the Pirates to get overly sentimental about their current roster, not only because of the financial challenges teams like the Pirates (and Rays and Athletics) face, but because ballplayers, as a group, tend to decline.
This brings us back to Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker. After Rob Biertempfel reported that the Pirates would that the Pirates would pursue extensions with those two players this offseason, I asked him whether he was talking about two-year-type deals to buy out arbitration seasons (which might turn out to be pretty routine) or long-term deals to buy out free agent years. He implied that he meant the latter.
I know a lot of people have baseball reasons for favoring extensions for these players, but to me, signing either player to a long-term deal on anything other than a ridiculously cheap price just smacks of getting too attached to them.
I like Alvarez and Walker as players. I like 420-foot home runs. But both players are under control for three more years, and they're both flawed players. We don't have any idea whether either of these players are going to be good in 2017. Alvarez's strikeout problems, low on-base percentage, body type and likely future defensive issues are all red flags. Walker's offense has never turned the corner, and he's become almost comically bad against left-handed pitchers. He also plays a position where players don't tend to age well. Why would the Pirates want to lock up these players four years from now, at what are unlikely to be bargain prices, when they have the luxury of controlling the next three? (If the Pirates want to sign a player to a long-term deal, it should be Starling Marte, who will be much cheaper and much more likely to be good in five years.)
The Pirates are already in very good position with both Alvarez and Walker. They control Alvarez through his age-29 season, and Walker through his age-30 season, at what will be below-market rates. And if either of them sustains a serious injury or becomes ineffective, the Pirates can non-tender them. Those are great deals for the Bucs. Typical aging curves suggest that Alvarez and Walker will be still be good for a couple more seasons, and then they'll gradually (or maybe rapidly, in Alvarez's case) start to go downhill. Let the Phillies or some other badly-run team make the mistake of paying big bucks for those going-downhill years. And if I'm wrong, we can revisit this in a year.
In the meantime, the Pirates' default position should be that they'll need to be unsentimental, even ruthless, with personnel decisions. Becoming the 2003 Angels is easy. Winning 94 games is hard.