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Ask Bucs Dugout: Will J.A. Happ return next season?

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Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks, everyone, for the questions. Here's the second round of answers.

Bill B. (via email): Will J.A. Happ return to the Pirates next season? Given what the magic Ray Searage dust has done for him, why would he want to go somewhere else? From the Pirates' perspective, why wouldn't you make a competitive offer to keep him around as your No. 3 starter?

The obvious answer is that he'd go somewhere else because money, just as Edinson Volquez left last offseason to take a two-year deal with the Royals. Volquez's example might be instructive for another reason, too -- his ERA is up a bit in Kansas City, but his underlying numbers suggest he's been no worse than he was last year, and maybe even a little better. If Happ leaves, he can't have Searage coach him anymore, but he can take the improvements he's already made with him.

That said, maybe Happ has pitched brilliantly for a short enough period of time that he could still be buy-low candidate for the Pirates. The Bucs can use another starting pitcher, and Happ's track record, while limited, obviously suggests he can be successful in Pittsburgh. Volquez got two years and $20 million; perhaps the Pirates could sign Happ for slightly less.

Alleghenys: Do you favor getting rid of the divisions and seeding the playoffs based on best records in each league?

Yes. In a 162-game schedule, novelty is good. In general, I'd much rather watch a series against, say, the Mets, the Mariners or the Rays than yet another against the Brewers. That'll never happen, though -- baseball loves its Yankees / Red Sox matchups, its Dodgers / Giants matchups, and so on.

Baseball can, however, maintain its divisional structure while still awarding the best teams with better playoff draws. If you haven't already seen it, check out the article I wrote Friday on the topic.

LeBeau-a-Constrictor: Pick your poison -- Jake Arrieta or Madison Bumgarner? That is, in the odd event that the Pirates don’t win the division.

Since you wrote this, the Cubs have surged and the Giants have faded, and there's only the slimmest chance that either Wild Card will come from outside the NL Central. FanGraphs gives the Giants a 0.1 percent chance of winning the Wild Card. Unless the Pirates can find a way to get past the Cardinals, then, they'll have to focus on Arrieta.

CTBucco: Austin Meadows, Harold Ramirez, Willy Garcia, Keon Broxton ... What do the Pirates do with the interesting outfielders starting to pile up in the upper levels with no outfield job openings until 2019?

The only guy on that list who's actively worth worrying about right now is Meadows, in my opinion. Ramirez is a long way from the big leagues and doesn't have Meadows' pedigree, and it's not at all clear what he might turn out to be. Garcia is interesting, but he has a .285 OBP in Triple-A this year and has struck out six times as often as he's walked. That makes him a fringe prospect, and he needs to improve his plate discipline dramatically next year to even enter the picture.

With regard to Broxton, we'll see what happens. He's played fairly well at Triple-A, and his speed and defensive ability would seem to give him obvious utility on a big-league bench. He's eligible for minor league free agency at the end of the season, however, and it's unclear whether the Pirates will add him to their 40-man roster once Indianapolis' season is over. Either way, though, he looks more like a good fourth outfielder than a starter.

Meanwhile, there will be time for the Pirates to find a place for Meadows, but it's not yet clear that there will be a problem. Maybe he won't pan out. Maybe someone will get hurt. And for now, at least, the Pirates have about a year and a half to figure things out.

Garrett122: Jung-Ho Kang has shown that his bat deserves to be in the lineup every day, and that he’s able to handle shortstop reasonably well. I feel like the perception is that Jordy Mercer is still the better defensive player, however. How big of a difference do you think there actually is in their respective defensive abilities, and how important is that difference considering Kang’s superior bat? In other words, going forward, do you think Mercer is basically a backup shortstop, or is his defense valuable enough that he should start behind groundball pitchers like Charlie Morton?

Kang pretty clearly looks like he's better than Mercer. Given that the Pirates can use various infielders in other ways, though (starting Kang at third base, starting Josh Harrison at second against lefties, and so on), the Bucs are justified in using Mercer as a semi-regular player. The Pirates' best defensive infield surely includes both Mercer and Kang anyway. Mercer is a bit better at shortstop than Kang (since his range is a bit better), and he's probably a bit better offensively than he's shown this year. He hit 12 home runs in 2014; this year he has two. If three or four more balls had flown out this season -- and I see no reason that couldn't have happened -- his overall line would be a lot more palatable.