I kind of get the feeling that Neal Huntington has this off-season mapped out. If he did, it wouldn’t be any different than previous off-seasons.
Last year rather than extending a qualifying offer to A.J. Burnett, they tried for James Loney and Edinson Volquez. When Loney signed with the Rays, they turned back to Burnett with the remaining money.
The plan worked out a little better the year before. They were aggressive early in the off-season to get Russell Martin. Then they dealt Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox, getting their future closer in Mark Melancon. That move also freed up payroll to sign Francisco Liriano.
The year before that, they signed the guys they wanted early — getting Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes — but the results weren’t nearly as good as the 2012-13 off-season.
We’re now about two weeks into the 2014-15 off-season and the Pirates have been active. They haven’t made any big splashes, but they appear to have a plan.
They’ve added several utility players, which was formerly Josh Harrison’s position. However, comments from Neal Huntington have Harrison as the starting third baseman next year.
They acquired Francisco Cervelli this week, giving them a backup plan if Russell Martin signs elsewhere. By all accounts, they’re still in on Martin. But realistically, Martin is probably signing elsewhere, as he would probably cost too much over too many years (with the latter being the bigger factor).
If Martin does sign elsewhere, then the Pirates have their catcher. They also have a lot of payroll flexibility to improve other areas of the team. And today’s addition of A.J. Burnett doesn’t change that. Burnett took less money to come to Pittsburgh, and he did it to give Neal Huntington more resources to add to the team. I doubt Burnett takes a $4.25 M hometown discount (the difference between his deal with the Pirates and what he turned down from the Phillies) if he doesn’t think Huntington is planning on using that money to upgrade the team.
So where do the Pirates go from here?
They definitely need one more starter, and that starter needs to be a top of the rotation guy. They can’t afford someone like Jon Lester, but they could definitely afford to bring back Francisco Liriano or add someone like Brandon McCarthy. Currently the payroll sits at $75 M, and will probably be at $70 M when the first base situation gets sorted out. Liriano and McCarthy have both been projected at $12 M per year, which puts the Pirates in the $82 M range.
From there, they could consider getting creative with the remaining money. They could add a first baseman to upgrade the position. I don’t think it would be a bad plan to go with Pedro Alvarez and Gaby Sanchez in a platoon, banking on rebound seasons from both. But if they want a full-time starter at first base, then that gives them a lot of flexibility in the lineup. If Neil Walker goes down, Josh Harrison could take over at second base and Alvarez could play third. If Harrison goes down, Alvarez is there. If the first baseman gets hurt, they can just turn to Alvarez as a Plan B.
Or there’s the needs in the bullpen and bench. Maybe they keep Alvarez and Sanchez as a first base platoon, and spend some money to get a good infielder off the bench who can do all of the above if one of the infielders goes down. The Pirates have done great at adding bullpen pieces without spending a lot of money, but with a need for a second lefty reliever, and possibly some middle relief help, they could afford to spend some money in this area.
Then there’s the most creative possibility of all. What if Russell Martin decides that he would rather have four years to return to the Pirates, rather than five years to go elsewhere? What if A.J. Burnett and whoever else the Pirates bring in help convince Martin that with his help, they could be serious contenders? The Pirates could bring in Martin at $15 M per year, plus someone like Liriano and McCarthy at $12 M per year, and end up in the $95 M range after adding a few low-key bench and bullpen upgrades. That’s certainly a range they can afford.
Coming into the off-season, it was clear that the Pirates needed two things very badly: multiple starting pitchers and a catcher to replace Russell Martin. Huntington quickly addressed the catching situation, and added one of the two pitchers this team needs. He did so while also leaving a lot of flexibility on the payroll to fill the other needs on this team.
The Pirates don’t seem done at all. In fact, they seem set up for a very interesting off-season.
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