The MLB Winter Meetings take place this week in Orlando, Florida. Normally this is the time where baseball’s off-season picks up steam, with a lot of transactions taking place. This year saw a ton of transactions take place the week before the meetings. The Pittsburgh Pirates weren’t one of the active teams last week, but they do have needs and could start to fill those needs in the upcoming days. Below is a preview of the team needs, along with thoughts on the type of players the Pirates could pursue at each position.

Starting Pitching

A.J. Burnett still seems to be deciding between retiring and returning to the Pirates. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
A.J. Burnett still seems to be deciding between retiring and returning to the Pirates. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The big discussion this off-season has surrounded A.J. Burnett. During the World Series, Burnett said that he would take about a week to decide whether he was going to retire. He has said that he is choosing between retiring or returning to the Pirates. Almost two months later, Burnett is still making his decision.

The Pirates didn’t make him a qualifying offer, which would have given him $14.1 M in 2014 if he would have accepted. The lack of a qualifying offer is irrelevant at this point, since Burnett only had a week to accept that and he obviously hasn’t made a decision yet. What is relevant are the comments that the Pirates can’t afford Burnett at that $14.1 M range, and that they can’t afford Burnett for market rate.

Neal Huntington’s comments on Burnett are true. If he hit the open market, he would get much more than $14 M. His salary would eat up most of the Pirates’ budget, making it hard for them to sign a first baseman.

The Huntington comments received a lot of backlash, and a lot of that is due to a lack of trust in the entire situation. If you believe that Burnett will only play for the Pirates, then there’s no fear that he could sign elsewhere. If you believe that he would sign with another team, then the Pirates are taking a big risk to allow him to sign elsewhere. The fact that zero A.J. Burnett rumors have surfaced involving other teams suggests that he is serious about the “retire or return to the Pirates” stance. I also can’t imagine he would demand $14 M instead of something around $10-12 M, especially since he has already made a lot of money in his career.

The off-season has already seen Mike Napoli take less to remain in Boston. It saw Josh Johnson take less because he wanted to play in San Diego. Pirates fans aren’t used to seeing players openly wanting to play in Pittsburgh. In fact, they are used to players passing up more money from the Pirates to go elsewhere. So the idea that anyone would truly say “Pittsburgh or retire” is unfamiliar, and leads to a lack of trust that the player is being sincere. And the idea that the Pirates can sign Burnett for below market rate shouldn’t be that ridiculous. A hometown discount isn’t unheard of when a player wants to play in a specific city. We’ve seen that twice this off-season.

When it comes to Burnett, I really think the Pirates are where they’ve been all along. He’s still deciding between retirement and returning to the Pirates. If he decides to come back, I think they will be able to sign him for below market rate, and possibly even for below the $14.1 M price.

If Burnett doesn’t return, then the Pirates don’t necessarily need a pitcher. They have a good rotation, with Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton leading the way. Wandy Rodriguez and Jeff Locke profile as the back of the rotation starters, with Stolmy Pimentel, Brandon Cumpton, and Phil Irwin all providing alternatives for the back of the rotation. Justin Wilson wouldn’t be a bad option to move to the rotation, although Pimentel might be set up better for that move since he started a full season last year.

The Pirates don’t need a starter if that starter is just going to be more of the same quality of Pimentel, Cumpton, Locke, or Irwin. We heard today that they checked in on Bronson Arroyo. He’s a good pitcher, but he profiles as a strong number four starter who is capable of 200 innings per year. That’s more of a luxury for the Pirates, giving them added depth. We saw how important depth was last year, but the Pirates need to balance short-term and long-term needs here. The short-term need would be depth and reliable starters. The long-term need would be developing guys like Locke and Pimentel. Signing someone like Arroyo and blocking Locke or Pimentel from the rotation would be a move out of Dave Littlefield’s playbook. The Pirates might be contenders now, but they’re always going to be a team that needs to give young guys a chance.

If the Pirates add a starting pitcher who has top of the rotation upside, that would be a different story. The short-term advantage would be much greater in this situation, giving a bigger boost to the rotation that they couldn’t get from guys like Locke and Pimentel. However, the potential top of the rotation guys, or even middle of the rotation guys, are slim at this point. Aside from Burnett, the current list of players who are capable of those numbers include:

Bartolo Colon

Matt Garza

Roy Halladay

Tommy Hanson

Daniel Hudson

Ervin Santana

The Pirates won’t be players for Garza or Santana. Most of the other players (including several that I didn’t name) are bounce back candidates to various degrees. Bartolo Colon is the most interesting name here. He’s old, but he’s still putting up strong numbers and is the type of ground ball pitcher that the Pirates prefer.

First Base

First base is turning into a buyer’s market. The top target for the Pirates looks to be James Loney. However, there are only four other teams who really need a first baseman. Aside from Loney, the free agent market offers Kendrys Morales and Corey Hart as top options. The trade market includes Mark Trumbo, Ike Davis, Mitch Moreland, Logan Morrison, and Adam Lind.

Loney makes the most sense for the Pirates. He wouldn’t cost prospects like the trade options. He matches up well as a platoon partner with Gaby Sanchez. His numbers in his career away from Dodger Stadium are strong. He’s also one of the best defensive first basemen in the league. In the last three years, Loney has ranked fifth overall in UZR/150 among 32 qualified first baseman with 1500+ innings during that span. Because of his defensive boost, Loney was more valuable last year than Allen Craig, Prince Fielder, Adam Lind — all players who had better offensive numbers than Loney.

If the Pirates platoon Loney, they will only boost the numbers from the first base position. While he had a .299 average against both lefties and right-handers last year, his OPS was about 70 points lower against left-handers. Gaby Sanchez crushed lefties last year, and is also strong defensively at first.

Even if the Pirates don’t land Loney (their big competition would probably be Tampa Bay), they should finish the off-season with a good first baseman, since there are plenty to choose from.

Right Field

It doesn’t seem like the Pirates will be adding a right fielder. They have Jose Tabata under contract. They tendered a contract to Travis Snider. They traded for Jaff Decker. Gregory Polanco could be up in the second half of the season. If they added another right field option, it would mean they wouldn’t have a roster spot for Snider or Tabata.

There might be people who find that idea appealing, but the reality is that the Pirates wouldn’t have tendered Snider a contract and traded for Decker if they had plans to add an external free agent. All of their statements have been in support of Tabata and Snider to get a shot, at least until Polanco arrives.

Backup Middle Infield

The Pirates could use a backup middle infielder who can play shortstop to play behind Jordy Mercer. Last year they had a good rotation with Clint Barmes and Mercer at shortstop, with Mercer getting more playing time. Barmes had some poor offensive numbers in his two years with the Pirates, but he was one of the best defensive shortstops in the majors. He wasn’t worth $5 M per year, but he would be worth $2 M a year as a bench player and a part-time starter (primarily when extreme ground ball pitchers are on the mound).


In most cases, I am against the idea of trading prospects for established major league players. Some might say that’s because I run a prospect site, but they’ve never seen the traffic spike that comes after the Pirates do trade a prospect for an established player. If business was my motivation, then I’d be pulling for trades of prospects all the time.

My reluctance towards trading prospects comes from my beliefs of how a small market team should be run. There is always talk of “windows” when small market teams are competing, with the idea that the team only has a few years to contend before they have to rebuild again. I believe that it’s possible for a small market team to sustain a contending team. I believe that if you make trades because of a “window”, you’re basically creating that window by weakening your farm system. Just take a look at Milwaukee as a prime example of how things can go wrong.

The Pirates could see a huge upgrade this off-season if they wanted to trade from their farm system. They could land anyone on the trade market, including guys who are available like David Price, or guys who aren’t available like Chase Headley or Giancarlo Stanton. The short-term upgrade would be big. The long-term downgrade could be catastrophic.

For a guy like Price, the Pirates would have to start with either Jameson Taillon or Gregory Polanco. I love David Price, but I wouldn’t deal six and a half years of either of those players for two years of Price at a combined estimated $30 M. Even if you could make the deal without those two, it would still be too much. The deal would require Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, and others. It would probably take half of the top ten prospects in the system.

There is a reason the Rays are successful year after year, despite an extremely small budget. They are always on the right side of these deals. They’re the ones trading away James Shields, David Price, Matt Garza, and others. Usually they replace those pitchers with guys they acquired the last time they traded a top pitcher. The overall result is that the Rays are the model organization for any small market team. And the worst way to follow that model is to be on the opposite side of the Rays in a prospects for Price deal. The same goes with any other prospects for establish player trade involving any other team. The Pirates don’t have to hoard prospects like the Rays do, but they can’t get into a habit of doing what they did during the regular season when they sent Vic Black and Dilson Herrera away for one month of Marlon Byrd.

It’s possible that the Pirates could add pieces via trade, but their best approach would be going for free agents who only cost money, and keeping their prospects.

Rule 5 Draft

The Rule 5 draft takes place on Thursday. The draft once saw impact talent drafted, but now the best players who come from the draft are middle relievers and bench players. It’s basically the same quality of players that you see on waivers. For a list of players who are available from the Pirates, check out our preview from a few weeks ago. Out of that list, Zack Thornton looks like the most likely to be drafted by another team.

Last year was the first year under Neal Huntington that the Pirates didn’t make a pick in the draft. It’s possible that they could skip the draft this year as well, since they will have limited roster space. They might be able to add a bullpen arm or a backup middle infielder for cheap with the pick. Again, the picks these days are basically waiver claim quality, which should put the value of the drafted players in perspective.

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  1. Regarding being on the right side of these deals, Tampa Bay style. I think it is time to explore a Pedro to the Yankees trade scenario. ARod is going to be suspended for some period of time, whatever that is. Whenever he returns, he will still be old, lame and a crazy distraction. Pedro is from New York and will inevitably explore the free agent market as a Boras client.

    I love Pedro, don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan. I don’t want to trade him, hope he is a career Pirate. Just don’t think that is going to happen and am a strong believer, i.e. the Rays model, of getting the most for a player if he isn’t going to stay. I think his value is at it’s highest right now for the Yankees. I think they would be very interested, as they get a star third basemen really cheap (for the Yankees), and in that stadium he might hit 50 bombs regularly.

    Feel he would be worth three very good prospects, which is how the Pirates need to continue to build. Interested to see what everybody else thinks.

  2. also, just curious… can Gaby Sanchez pass as a 3rd baseman? i know he got some work there. If the Pirates signed Loney, a guy who isn’t pathetic vs arm side pitching, we could see more Sanchez for Alvarez pinch ABs vs tough lefty relievers, which i think would make a big difference late in close games.

    on second thought, loney is pretty pathetic against lefties for his career. i was originally looking at his 2013… but he’s a lot less pathetic against lefties than pedro is, so my post still makes some sense!

    • You’re looking at the offense. Defensively, I’d rather have Pedro/Gaby rather than Gaby/Loney. I think Pedro’s defensive value at third over Gaby is better than Loney’s offensive value against lefties over Pedro.

  3. I think Neal will pull off a shocker this week. I think Pedro Alvarez is on the trading block. If the Pirates will not pay market value to acquire the starting pitcher/ 1st baseman/ middle INF/ right field that they need. I think Seattle will be a perfect match.

    Pedro Alvarez to Seattle in exchange for 3B Kyle Seager (who is basically Pedro will fewer K’s ) SS Brad Miller (22 yr old 110 OPS+ om 76 games with solid D) RHP Carter Capps (22 yr old heir apparent to Grilli with 66K’s in 59 IP) and even LHP James Paxton (top 100 prospect who would fit nicely between Cole and Taillon).

    This is the risky high risk high reward small market needs to make whether the fanbase likes it or not. We have a darn good enough farm system where the winning can be sustainable for years to come.

    • i think it would take more than Alvarez to get only Seager. Seager has more team control and is still in his dirt cheap years and is almost as good as Alvarez.

      But heck, if all this stuff about the SEA FO is true… it’s worth a try!

    • I predict there will be a deal with Seattle. But it’s not going to net any of the players mentioned so far. It’ll be Dustin Ackley for someone non-essential in Chapter Seven of Neal’s never-ending search for a former 1st round IF prospect who will live up to their former potential.

      As we speak, Dan Fox is parsing Ackley’s 2nd half numbers to figure out why nobody wanted to pitch to Ackley in September so Neal will be able to justify the trade on the basis of OBP and not have to spend for Loney while also providing a backup for Walker.

  4. I could see Drew and Morales having a Lohse-like offseason. hopefully having the draft pick attached to them drops their price obnoxiously and the pirates can pick one up at a discount. Probably won’t happen since Lohse still got a nice pay day. But just something to consider.

  5. I’ll be surprised if James Loney isn’t a Pirate by weeks end, I also think they’ll add a starter this week. They have to add a starter. I’m sorry, but, I have zero confidence in Jeff Locke, Wandy is a huge wildcard due to health, and while I like Brandon Cumpton as a 6th or 7th man I don’t like the idea of him breaking camp with the team.

    • The weirdest thing about the Ray Searage factor is that people have accepted that he can help pitchers with adjustments to get them to their best level. However, no one considers that the pitchers currently on the roster could also be helped by Searage. I don’t know if this applies to you, but if you trust Searage to help a bounce back pitcher, then you should trust him to help Locke.

      • OTOH, the more time Locke spent with Searage the worse he got. And Searage couldn’t help JMac. To me, the problem with Locke is that I don’t believe he thinks there is a problem based on pretty much every interview he’s given since he went south. He still thinks he has All-Star stuff.

        • That’s possible. That seemed to be the case with McDonald, since he never had a reason why his stuff struggled after the first half of 2012.

          In Locke’s case, he wasn’t as good as his first half, but he wasn’t as bad as his second half. If he just continues pitching the way he has been pitching, he should finish somewhere in the middle as a strong number four starter.

  6. Trade Mark Melancon to the Mariners for Nick Franklin and Justin Smoak. The mariners are going to make other moves to justify the Cano signing, they need bullpen help and Melancon numbers are as good as any last year, on the flip side, we have too many arms and not enough spots on our pen.

  7. “… it’s a bit wasteful on resources. Just because there is money to spend, doesn’t mean it has to be spent.”

    Word! It’s about allocating resources wisely, and not spending just for the sake of spending.

  8. Tim: I have to agree with you that there are many ways to go, but the Pirates are not in Orlando knowing that they have to make a deal, and that is the greatest position to have at gatherings like this. I had hoped that AJ Burnett would have decided by now, because Francisco Liriano could have been a strong candidate to have in the position of going into the season again with two #1’s at the top of the Rotation, or making him available for the right package of young prospects.

    1B – Loney is the FA with a strong glove and a bat that can be .600+ OPS or an .800+ OPS. I always thought he needed to get out of LA, because every year the fans were merciless in expecting him to hit HR’s like Kemp or Ethier, and it wore on Loney. Because he can be placed in the order at #5, 6, or 7, he is going to have a lot of protection in the order. I like Mitch Moreland because he has played for a playoff caliber team the past 3 years, is in his first year of Arbitration, and is a victim of the trade bringing Prince Fielder to Texas. Therefore, his value in ARB is expected to be around $1.5 or $2.0 mil, his value in trade is not that great either. He has played strong defense, and has more power from the left side than Loney. Another possibility, IMO, is moving Walker to 1B when a RHP is throwing, and find a quality switchhitting 2B with a solid glove like Nick Franklin of Seattle, who is out of a job after only a half of a season in the majors. Seattle has Cano, Miller at SS, and Seager at 3B – nowhere to go. I would also love to see the Pirates pick up a few solid 1B prospects such as Dan Vogelbach of the Cubs, and Matt Skole of the Nat’s, so that we could have a 1B in training instead of the annual 1B search.

    • “Another possibility, IMO, is moving Walker to 1B when a RHP is throwing, and find a quality switchhitting 2B with a solid glove like Nick Franklin of Seattle, who is out of a job after only a half of a season in the majors.”

      Any move like this is basically signing Nick Franklin to be your first baseman from a hitting perspective. I wouldn’t do that.

      • No, Walker came in as a Catcher, but did very well adjusting to 3B in AA and AAA and then 2B in the majors. Therefore, he knows the game well, and has the hands and feet to play any position in the IF, including 1B. Rather than extend ourselves, if we could get Franklin at a reasonable price, and use Neil as a regular at 1B against RHP’s, (possibly 100 games) I am pretty sure it will simply put into effect what might happen when a kid like Alen Hansen is ready to move up in a year or two. And, having a kid like Franklin would just add another excellent young IF option, especially with Pedro on a 3 year countdown. Neil is someone I think could benefit from the move and mature into a 20-25 HR/yr hitter. He had a down year in 2013 average-wise, but his K/W Ratio showed a nice improvement, and his number of HR’s was up I think. And would this not be the best time to sign Neil Walker long term? Let’s capitalize on the down year.

  9. I can’t for the life of me understand the logic for the Pirates to go and sign a guy like Drew for say 3/30 and give up a draft pick, just so he can come in and platoon with an existing option. The same to a lesser degree with Loney. Granted, they’d both be the bigger part of the platoon, but I still think it’s a bit wasteful on resources. Just because there is money to spend, doesn’t mean it has to be spent. I’m perfectly fine sorting out the internal options and moving forward as such. The farm is going start bearing fruit and in order to continue to maintain success, the bulk of starting lineup needs to come from indy and not miami or tampa. Resign Barmes to spell Mercer and of course AJ if he wants to return. But outside that there’s not much to see considering what’s already been stated by Huntington.

  10. “His numbers in his career away from Dodger Stadium are strong.”

    Loney’s OPS with TB in 2013, his most productive year since 2007 = 778

    Loney’s OPS in away games as a Dodger:

    2012 = 637
    2011 = 756
    2010 = 729
    2009 = 862
    2008 = 807

      • That’s “strong” if you’re a utility infielder who can play some shortstop. For a 1B, not so much.

        TB signed Loney to a one-year, $2MM contract last year. Now he’s worth a multi-year contact at over $7MM per year? What happened between then and now to make him so much more valuable? A career “resurgence” of a 790 OPS in 2013? That makes him all of a sudden worth $20MM?

        • Have you actually seen the numbers around the league? If you can play shortstop and hit for a .790-800 OPS, you’re not a utility player. The league average OPS by position:

          2B – .692
          SS – .675
          1B – .762

  11. The question at 1B is how much do the Bucs value defense? I think the answer is, a lot. They shifted a lot last year and probably want to do even more of it this year, and for that to be truly effective you need an athletic 1B.

    Loney’s bat is nothing special. I wouldn’t feel comfortable going three years with him, but if we can get him for two at a reasonable price, that’d be OK. He’s better than Sanchez defensively, so if we sign him we don’t have to have Sanchez facing the other team’s best RH reliever in the late innings, which is a plus, we can save him to pinch hit in crucial situations right when the other team brings in a lefty. I also like that he is a line drive, high average hitter, something the Pirates need to improve. He hits a lot of ground balls, but I could see him hitting second to take advantage of Marte’s speed game, so we could move Neil down in the order.

    The other route is going offense, with someone like Lind or Ike Davis. I like Lind because he has options the next two years, so if he flames out we can drop him for a million at the end of this year or a half million at the end of 2015. But he’ll cost something in terms of prospects. And the question is, how bad is his defense? Davis is a buy low option but the issue with him is he is a similar hitter in style to Pedro. He’s cheaper than Lind with arbitration upcoming, but if he is platooned might really improve his numbers of the past two years.

    Option three is bringing in someone solely to compete with Lambo for the job from that side of the the platoon. Moreland, LoMo, someone of that ilk. I’m not against that if they would make a serious offer to Stephen Drew to play SS for them, but I doubt they’d make that kind of committment. Drew would be a great platoon with Mercer, and could do very well in the two hole. He’d really lengthen the lineup against RHP. If they could get him for three years at about 10mil a year, I think it’d be a great move. Of course I doubt Drew would have problems finding a 4 year deal, and I doubt the Bucs would consider this. But they should.

    The reason that the Bucs had to make moves at the deadline is that they didn’t properly adjust the holes in their lineup last offseason. I agree they can’t continue to do that, because deadline deals are usually overpays. So I hope that Neal has a good week, but I fear he will be too conservative.

    Not that I want to see him do something idiotic like trade for Price or Stanton.

    • “I like Lind because he has options the next two years, so if he flames out we can drop him for a million at the end of this year or a half million at the end of 2015.”

      Usually in those situations you have to buy out both option years. So it would be a million and a half at the end of 2014, or half a million at the end of 2015.

      “The reason that the Bucs had to make moves at the deadline is that they didn’t properly adjust the holes in their lineup last offseason. I agree they can’t continue to do that, because deadline deals are usually overpays. So I hope that Neal has a good week, but I fear he will be too conservative.”

      I don’t know if that’s really the case. They needed a first baseman because Garrett Jones had a horrible season. Coming into the year he wasn’t seen as a problem. They needed a right fielder because no one worked out. You might have an argument with this position. However, they added Travis Snider at the 2012 trade deadline, and added Jerry Sands and Felix Pie over the off-season. That gave them five options (Snider, Tabata, Presley, Sands, Pie). None of those options performed well prior to the Byrd trade.

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