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Pirates likely to focus on pitching this offseason

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the Pirates' season is over, the winter is on its way. The Bucs are will be in an enviable position this offseason -- they'll return most of the core of a 98-win team, and they can hope for contributions from several high-upside rookies next season, including Tyler Glasnow and Josh Bell. But they'll still have to deal with the impending departures of A.J. Burnett, Aramis Ramirez, J.A. Happ, Joakim Soria, Antonio Bastardo, Joe Blanton, and Sean Rodriguez. There's also Jung-Ho Kang's uncertain injury status to think about.

The Bucs will also have to contend with the arbitration statuses of Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Jeff Locke and Mark Melancon. I've already written about the first three of those players in detail. Walker probably isn't long for Pittsburgh, but for next year, he should be back. I think the Pirates will tender Alvarez only if they think he has trade value; whether they tender him or not, I don't think he's likely to return. Locke, meanwhile, will be relatively cheap ($3.5 million, by MLBTR's projections) and is useful enough that the Pirates will probably tender him, but I don't think they'll hesitate to upgrade on him if they can. If they do, he could be a trade candidate this winter.

That leaves Melancon, who I think will probably return. He'll be expensive ($10 million, via MLBTR) for a team like the Pirates, but he's proven over the past three years that he's worth $10 million. He will, however, be eligible for free agency after next season, so I could see the Pirates making him available in a trade this winter, planning to keep him if they don't get an offer they like. A Melancon trade would be massively unpopular, but it's worth remembering that the reason the Pirates have Melancon in the first place is that they acquired him as a buy-low move for a former closer. It might also be worth noting that, looking past his ridiculous saves total, 2015 was Melancon's worst season with the Bucs (though he was still obviously excellent overall) -- his ERA, FIP, xFIP, K/9, BB/9, and SIERA were all his worst in a Pirates uniform.

Beyond making decisions on their key arbitration players, the Bucs' key objective this offseason will be addressing their starting rotation. Charlie Morton will almost certainly be in the rotation to start the year, which will make everyone angry, but which seems sensible to me -- Morton posted a 4.81 ERA in 2015, but advanced stats suggest he should have been a bunch better, and he still got a ton of ground balls. Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano will be back, and the Bucs will be able to count on Glasnow and perhaps Jameson Taillon to pitch at least some of the season. Nick Kingham could also be a factor at some point.

Still, that leaves one or two spots the Pirates will probably try to address this winter. One might think it would make sense for all parties for Happ to re-sign, although this offseason likely represents the best shot Happ will ever get of signing a significant free-agent contract, so if another team offers more than the Pirates do, it would be hard to fault him for taking it.

Regardless, there's a ton of pitching available this winter -- the Pirates are in a favorable position relative to the market for once. There are a bunch of top-tier guys (Zack Greinke, David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann), and there's also a strong mid-tier group (Scott Kazmir, Ian Kennedy, John Lackey, Brett Anderson, Mike Leake, Wei-Yin Chen). The Pirates likely won't be involved in the bidding for the first group -- we'd all love them to be, but there probably isn't much point in even talking about it. But they could certainly pursue guys from the second.

There are also some interesting buy-low types, and there's already been some speculation connecting the Pirates to Mat Latos and Jeff Samardzija. Latos seems a little unlikely to me, given his record of criticizing his previous teams -- I don't know anything beyond what's been reported, but I wonder how coachable MLB executives think he is. Samardzija kind of makes sense, though. He could easily sign somewhere on a one-year deal hoping to bounce back and contribute next year. Maybe someone like Doug Fister could be a possibility as well.

The Bucs will also need to rebuild their bullpen -- which, luckily, isn't that hard to do. Melancon, Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Arquimedes Caminero and Rob Scahill could all be back, but the Pirates will likely pursue a couple arms beyond that. Identifying who they might go after seems senseless -- who would have thought they'd sign Radhames Liz to a big-league deal last year? At least one will likely be a lefty, though. The return of Oliver Perez would be pretty cool (although, as pat_meares points out in the comments, the Pirates would have to use Perez much more situationally than they typically do with their lefty relievers). Tony Sipp might be another possibility, and the Pirates could also elect to re-sign Bastardo, who was great down the stretch.

The Pirates' group of position players is more settled (unless they really do non-tender Walker, in which case all bets are off). First base remains a problem, however. Michael Morse will be back, but as solid as he was for the Bucs late in 2015, he has very little defensive value and ended the year with a .649 OPS, and he also had a .651 OPS in 2013. He shouldn't be the Bucs' Plan A at first base, and Alvarez, given his obvious inability to handle the position defensively, shouldn't be, either.

One possibility, as I've suggested before, is for the Pirates to move Walker to first base on a part-time basis, then have him move back to playing second more frequently once Bell is promoted. The Pirates could then sign a free-agent infielder for depth. Unfortunately, the free agent market at first base isn't much help. The top players, Chris Davis and Byung-Ho Park, are both going to require lengthy commitments, and if Pirates believe Bell is going to be a good big-leaguer, it's hard to see them signing someone for four years or more. Another possibility would be to acquire a shorter-term option via trade -- Adam Lind might, again, be a possibility.

Ultimately, then, if you're concerned about the Pirates' payroll, pitching is the area to watch. As we've seen recently, though, the Pirates are better than just about anyone else at identifying and helping pitchers who have potential, so it wouldn't be a shock to see them acquire some lower-cost pitching options (possibly including players not mentioned here) and get more out of them then we expected.