Major League Baseball's annual Winter Meetings, which will be in full Nashville swing a week from Monday, are always the crucible for the ensuing championship season. It is the concentrated marketplace where front-office armies, led by their general managers, make moves to improve their teams or to put on a show, maybe both.
Unless you are Neal Huntington, the Pirates' general manager. Then you do neither. Huntington isn't concerned about making a splash, and tends to leave his trading chips at home. He will talk up the house -- in this instance, the very large house of the Gaylord Opryland Hotel -- to lay the groundwork for possible later deals or free-agent signings.
With the exception of two obvious needs -- at catcher and the back end of the starting rotation -- Huntington has a conservative shopping list. When you look at the trees within that forest of 20 straight losing seasons, the Pirates' core is set, and is pretty solid. They'll stay the course of a 22-game improvement over the past two seasons, most of which has come from young players they've developed, with few veteran transients involved.
One other area in which the Pirates have improved dramatically the last two years: the gate. PNC Park attendance jumped 479,000 between 2010 and 2012. That box-office performance has to have boosted Huntington's job security in the eyes of club chairman Bob Nutting. Conversely, the supporting public wants to see it translate to more aggressive attempts to enhance the roster.
As far as actual on-site activity is concerned, Huntington's Pirates figure to be Winter Meetings wallflowers. His track record strongly suggests as much.
This will be Huntington's sixth Winter Meetings since becoming Pittsburgh's GM in September 2007. His box score for the first five reveals two decidedly minor trades, Ronny Paulino for Jason Jaramillo in 2008 and the acquisition of Yamaico Navarro last December.
Free-agent takeaways have been slightly more frequent under Huntington's watch, including Kevin Correia in 2010 and both Erik Bedard and Nate McLouth last year. Overall, however, the Pirates use the Winter Meetings to plan, not to pounce.
The planning will percolate days before the Pirates' contingent checks in. Decisions on which, if any, of eight arbitration-eligible players will not be tendered contracts by Friday's deadline will influence Huntington's financial headroom under the Bucs' payroll ceiling. Right now, guaranteed contracts and projected raises to those eight place the team's 2013 payroll at $63 million, and it won't go significantly higher.
Those projected raises account for a sizable chunk -- a whopping 43 percent -- of that $63 million. So for any flexibility to add on, the Bucs would have to hand out some pink slips, to the likely displeasure of the fanbase. In that case, Huntington would bank on his subsequent moves reversing the expected criticism.
The GM is refreshingly candid in how his staff will make those decisions.
"We take a look at what the alternatives are," Huntington said. "Can we get better by going cheaper? Is the player value proportionate with what we can expect in arbitration?"
Those decisions will weigh heavily on the club's potentially most unsettled area, the starting rotation. Three starting pitchers are in the arbitration group, each presenting a different case: James McDonald, who was half sensational in 2012; Jeff Karstens, who was both fine and fragile; Charlie Morton, who is out of the picture at least until the second half as he recovers from Tommy John elbow reconstruction.
"We have some decisions to make about how we allocate our resources and what our options are," Huntington said.
Obviously, the Pirates wouldn't be able to replace McDonald and Karstens, who figure to make a combined $7 million, with established veterans. Without them, the burden would fall on rookies Kyle McPherson, Jeff Locke and, quite likely, Gerrit Cole to team with A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez.
That's where "allocating resources" comes in, of course. The Pirates could address other areas of need.
The top of manager Clint Hurdle's wish list isn't very sexy. The manager wants some experienced depth, veterans for his bench who can be satisfied with that role without the restlessness of youth. Hurdle considered that a significant handicap last season, when under-used prospects such as Jordy Mercer and Gorkys Hernandez comprised his reserve.
Although it may be a difficult thing for fans who have watched this team lose for 20 years, you can't look at them through that prism of a lost generation. The Pirates have a core -- center fielder Andrew McCutchen, second baseman Neil Walker, third baseman Pedro Alvarez -- to build around, and expectations are high for left fielder Starling Marte to join that core. Shortstop Clint Barmes will be back for another one-year span of the bridge to someone like Mercer or Chase d'Arnaud. The Bucs would like to solidify first base and/or right field -- but have a 27-homer, 85-RBI guy (Garrett Jones) who factors in at both spots.
Western Pennsylvania is antsy, if not downright rebellious, for Huntington to throw caution to the wind and make some big, aggressive moves. But he remains committed to the belief that for a team like the Pirates, the key is not a risky blockbuster, but low-risk opportunism.
It has worked in the past, with guys like Jason Grilli and Jones (both signed on the rebound), and could work with a guy like Felix Pie, thus far this offseason's only "name" addition.
"We have to do a better job of hitting on guys like that," said Huntington.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.