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Pirates take offseason risks, come up empty-handed

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

A few more thoughts on A.J. Burnett:

-P- I just noticed the report that Burnett's contract with the Phillies might include a player option. If so, that could change the Phillies' deal pretty dramatically. Obviously, that doesn't explain why the Pirates didn't extend a qualifying offer.

-P- Travis Sawchik explains what the Pirates' thought process regarding the qualifying offer might have been. Essentially, it seems the Pirates might have had $17-19 million to spend on a starting pitcher, first baseman and utility infielder (plus perhaps a right fielder, had they gone in that direction), and they didn't want to extend the qualifying offer and have Burnett take up $14 million of that right off the bat. If that was the Pirates' thinking, there are a few problems:

1) In this market, $17-19 million isn't enough to credibly address three positions, including two starting positions. If that's what Neal Huntington had to work with, his bosses really put him in a tough spot. I don't have much to add to that, but it's an important point.

2) That said, Huntington took that tough spot and made it tougher. Think back to the beginning of the offseason (or late last summer) and the first-base market. There was Jose Abreu and Mike Napoli, both of whom were evidently out of the Pirates' price range. There was Corey Hart, to whom the Pirates were never seriously connected, at least not that we know of. There was James Loney. There was Kendrys Morales, who might not even really be a starting first baseman and who would have a qualifying offer attached. And then there was a bunch of players who weren't worthy of a starting job on a contending team (Justin Morneau, Kevin Youkilis, Mark Reynolds, etc.). There were also potential trade options, like Ike Davis. But in the free-agent market, there wasn't much the Pirates could do with their budget except go full-bore after Loney (or Hart).

3) We know the Pirates also tried to pursue Josh Johnson, and it seems they offered more than the $8 million Johnson got from San Diego. So maybe the Pirates' Plan A was to get Johnson, Loney and Clint Barmes. That's not a bad Plan A. The problem was that once Loney re-signed with Tampa, I'm not sure what Plan B would have been, other than the last-ditch $12 million Burnett offer. Other than Hart, there wasn't anyone else on the free-agent first-base market who would have been, first, within the Pirates' budget, and second, expensive enough to prevent them from paying Burnett $14.1 million. If the Pirates end up with someone like Ike Davis or Mike Carp, which seems increasingly likely, they won't pay heavily for them, at least not in terms of dollars. Davis will make $3.5 million in 2014, and Carp will make $1.4 million.

So, given that the Pirates weren't getting Abreu or Napoli, I'm not sure what they planned to do if Loney signed elsewhere, and what they've done since then hasn't helped me figure it out. There have also been rumors that they tried to trade for Adam Lind, but that didn't seem that likely either, given that he occupies a starting position on what should be a competitive team. At least from the outside, their plan looks a little like James Loney or bust, which seems like an overly optimistic plan.

Based on the little we know, here's what they tried to do:

Josh Johnson ~$9 million
James Loney ~$7 million
Clint Barmes $2 million

= $18 million

When that didn't work, here's what it seems they tried next:

Edinson Volquez $5 million
Clint Barmes $2 million
A.J. Burnett $12 million
First base ???

= $19 million

Note, also, that John Perrotto's report that the Pirates initially offered Burnett $8.5 million makes sense in this context. Burnett's $8.5 million would have replaced the money the Pirates tried to give to Johnson, and would have allowed them to continue to pursue Loney as well.

Obviously, none of this worked out. Johnson went to the Padres, Loney went back to the Rays, Burnett went to the Phillies, and now the Pirates are holding the bag. Given the way things turned out, it's hard to give them credit for having much of a read on the Burnett situation, and it seems like they got greedy. They wanted the top-notch starting pitcher and the solid first baseman, and they didn't want to pay heavily to get them. From the beginning, many of us were looking at it a bit more simply. In October, I said extending the qualifying offer to Burnett was "an easy decision." I softened that position once it was pointed out to me that the qualifying offer might be seen as a show of bad faith, and if the Pirates knew Burnett wouldn't sign elsewhere, then extending it didn't serve any purpose.

But however they did it, the Pirates should have been willing to spend $14.1 million on Burnett, and all the evidence suggests they weren't, because they wanted to acquire a starting pitcher and a first baseman. Sometimes the simpler route is best. Burnett is a very good pitcher, and $14.1 million is a very good deal. Therefore, they should have been willing to pay it. They still would probably have had enough money to sign Barmes and trade for someone like Davis or Carp, one of whom they'll likely end up with anyway. Instead, it seems like the Pirates tried to shoot the moon, and it didn't work.

To be fair to Neal Huntington here, this kind of moon-shooting doesn't always end with him holding the queen of spades. The entire 2011-2012 offseason hinged on the Pirates waiting until February for the Yankees to trade Burnett to them for nothing. Fortunately for the Pirates, the Yankees did exactly that, and the team improved dramatically as a result. Without that move, the Bucs' Barmes/Barajas/Bedard/McLouth offseason would have been widely -- and mostly correctly -- perceived as a giant mess. The moon-shooting gambit worked two years ago. It doesn't seem to have worked this year. And so it's hard to be too critical without acknowledging that 1) it's very hard for Huntington to do anything productive on the offseason market with his budget unless he's willing to go a little nuts, and 2) sometimes shooting the moon does work.

In any case, though, the result this time is that the Pirates have very little to show for their offseason. Maybe they can make up for some of that inactivity by making a trade or two. There's still time for them to upgrade, and maybe Huntington will find some creative way to turn the Pirates' offseason around. (And, heck, maybe the Volquez addition will turn out to be a brilliant one, though I wouldn't bet on it.) But with the best players remaining on the free-agent market coming with draft-pick forfeiture attached, and with the Pirates' budget bearing down on them, there aren't many options.