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Bucs practicing patience this Hot Stove season

MLB.com @adamdberry

PITTSBURGH -- This time last year, the Pirates' offseason work was all but over. They signed Daniel Hudson on Dec. 21, 2016, and re-signed Ivan Nova six days later. They spent the following six weeks shuffling players to clear roster spots, making small-scale trades and signing Minor League free agents.

Now, it seems Pittsburgh's offseason has barely begun. The Winter Meetings have come and gone without much activity. So, too, has the holiday season. Pitchers and catchers will report to the Pirate City complex in about six weeks, and many young players will be there next week for voluntary workouts. But still the Pirates' plans remain unclear.

PITTSBURGH -- This time last year, the Pirates' offseason work was all but over. They signed Daniel Hudson on Dec. 21, 2016, and re-signed Ivan Nova six days later. They spent the following six weeks shuffling players to clear roster spots, making small-scale trades and signing Minor League free agents.

Now, it seems Pittsburgh's offseason has barely begun. The Winter Meetings have come and gone without much activity. So, too, has the holiday season. Pitchers and catchers will report to the Pirate City complex in about six weeks, and many young players will be there next week for voluntary workouts. But still the Pirates' plans remain unclear.

Whether they regroup or reload, the next month will determine the Pirates' direction for the next year and perhaps for 2019 and beyond.

Hot Stove Tracker

It's important to note the Pirates are not the only team moving slowly this winter. The list of top free agents still available at every position is a stunning collection of quality and depth. For most front offices, it appears January will be the offseason's busiest month.

But the Pirates' situation is unique. They have not declared themselves buyers or sellers, yet it's known throughout the industry that they are willing to listen to offers for even their marquee players: Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. It's also known that general manager Neal Huntington works deliberately and methodically, evaluating all of his options before making a decision.

In a recent interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Pirates chairman Bob Nutting said Huntington "has a wide-open slate" this offseason.

"There are more paths and opportunities open right now for the Pirates than we've had in any particular window I can think of," Nutting told the Tribune-Review. "That's where not limiting his flexibility, but making sure as many options and doors are open for him to be able to explore with other general managers, [will] make sure we don't get pigeon-holed as a seller or a buyer. That hurts our ability to make the best deal on the marketplace."

There has been far more speculation about who they might give up -- namely McCutchen, Cole and Josh Harrison -- than who they might bring in. An ESPN report even described the Pirates as a "motivated seller" with Cole. Still, all three remain Pirates as Spring Training draws nearer.

The only substantive rumor regarding McCutchen linked him to the Giants, who have reportedly cast a wide net in their search for outfield help. Harrison has reportedly drawn interest from the Yankees, Mets and Blue Jays, but it's unclear how serious their pursuits might be. The most intense speculation surrounds Cole, who has been the subject of trade talks between the Pirates and Yankees.

If the Pirates don't find a suitable deal as the offseason continues to quietly plod forward, perhaps they will move on with Cole, McCutchen and Harrison. They're coming off consecutive losing seasons, but they could roll the dice with largely the same roster, hoping for good health and breakthrough performances from their young players.

But if the Hot Stove activity finally picks up and Huntington finds that "best deal on the marketplace" for one of his stars, it could trigger a series of moves and signal a step back this year.

What will it take to find that deal? Huntington may have offered a hint for that answer, and an explanation for this quiet offseason, at the end of the Winter Meetings.

"Patience," he said. "Patience and seeing how it plays out, seeing what opportunities we're able to create and capitalize on."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

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