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Huntington could look to make big splash at Meetings

Pirates general manager seeking upgrades to starting rotation

Neal Huntington will be a busy man in San Diego. However, the Pirates' general manager figures to do more listening than asking at the Winter Meetings: Fellow executives will do their best to talk Huntington out of the high-end prospects he had grudgingly included in trade discussions prior to July's non-waiver Trade Deadline.

The playing field, of course, has shifted. Then, the Bucs were interested in pitching pieces who could help them reach the postseason and, once there, go deep into October. Now the Pirates need centerpieces who could make themselves reliably at home in Pittsburgh, although the accent remains on starting pitching.

Huntington may be done with the little, fringe moves, of which he has made many since the end of the season. If he drops another shoe, it would be a big one that impacts the Pirates on multiple levels, perhaps even shaking up a starting lineup that at the moment seems set.

The Pirates have two veteran catchers -- but neither Chris Stewart nor Francisco Cervelli has ever had as many as 300 at-bats in a season, and both bat right-handed, a drawback to a possible platoon.

More food for thought: Two other puzzling positions are first base, now belonging to a reluctant Pedro Alvarez, and right field, where Gregory Polanco could stand some veteran backup besides fellow left-handed hitter Travis Snider. So someone like Allen Craig, one of the spare Boston outfielders who has seen the bulk of his big league playing time at first, could be of interest to Huntington.

Club needs

Rotation: There is one physical void, and additional upgrade needs if the Bucs don't feel comfortable committing to Jeff Locke and Vance Worley behind Gerrit Cole and A.J. Burnett. Obviously, free agent Francisco Liriano remains the main target, with Edinson Volquez not far behind. The Pirates don't need any more typical reclamation candidates -- Radhames Liz and lefty Clayton Richard are already in-house -- so any future acquisition(s) would be of the sure-thing variety.

First base: This is the Bucs' Area 51, a mystery after the departure of both of this season's first basemen (Ike Davis, Gaby Sanchez) dropped the position solely into the lap of a convert (Alvarez) with a career total of 37 innings at first. If the Bucs aren't willing to go all-or-nothing with a neophyte and if the opportunity presents itself, they could pull a major trigger here.

Video: The plan for Alvarez at first, progress of Taillon

Who they can trade if necessary

Catcher Tony Sanchez: There may be an American League market for him (think Jesus Montero, the one-time top Yankees prospect who was dealt to Seattle, where he did more DH-ing than catching), but there definitely isn't a spot for him on the Pirates. Elias Diaz is now the prospect shadowing veterans Stewart and Cervelli, and 2013 first-round draftee Reese McGuire is the long-term hope.

Alvarez: It seems quite obvious why he still has his heart and mind set on third base -- he is two years away from free agency and doubtless wants to enter the market as a third baseman. Asking him to play first may be both too awkward and too uncertain. Power is at a huge premium these days, and if a chance arises to flip him into multiple upgrades (first and rotation?), the Pirates may find it irresistible.

Top prospects

Tyler Glasnow towers -- literally -- over the stash, as the 6-foot-8 right-hander keeps collecting plaudits. No. 2 is another righty, Jameson Taillon, even after an inactive season due to Tommy John surgery. No. 3 Josh Bell strengthened his image as an athletic outfielder while struggling in a trial at first base in the Arizona Fall League. The rest of the Top 10, as rated by OF Austin Meadows, RHP Nick Kingham, SS Alen Hanson, McGuire, OF Harold Ramirez, SS Cole Tucker and RHP Mitch Keller.

Rule 5 Draft

It will be a process of attrition for the Pirates. Huntington won't veer from his usual reluctance to partake -- the Bucs made no picks the last two years -- but several exposed Pittsburgh players could tempt other organizations. Foremost among them: infielders Stetson Allie and Gift Ngoepe and outfielder Mel Rojas Jr.

Big contracts they might unload

As usual, this is not an issue with the Bucs. Their payroll reigning involves shedding players whose projected roles do not fit the contracts they would be in line to get through arbitration (as was the case this year with John Axford, Davis and Gaby Sanchez).

Payroll summary

Opening Day 2014: $72 million

Final 2014: $78 million.

Current: $71 million (five guaranteed contracts, and ballpark projections for rest of roster, including 11 players eligible for salary arbitration).

Projected 2015: $90 million.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. Follow him on Twitter @Tom_Singer.
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