Pirates' plans could come into focus at Meetings
Club's needs include starting pitching, help at first base, bullpen depth
PITTSBURGH -- Late Wednesday night, the Pirates made their boldest move of the offseason, non-tendering Pedro Alvarez and making him a free agent. But that was about subtraction, not addition, and general manager Neal Huntington has repeatedly said the Bucs would like to supplement their existing core this winter.
So far this offseason, the Pirates have sustained significant losses in free agency while quietly adding a few players with limited big league experience. How will they address those losses in their rotation, bullpen and, most recently, at first base?
Who will the Pirates bring aboard? Who will they ship out? And what will their next moves tell us about their plans for next season and beyond? The 2016 picture should begin to come into clearer focus next week at the annual Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn.
MLB.com and MLB Network will provide wall-to-wall coverage of the 2015 Winter Meetings from the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, with the Network launching 35 hours of live Winter Meetings coverage on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET. Fans can also catch live streaming of all news conferences and manager availability on MLB.com, as well as the announcement of the Hall of Fame Pre-Integration Era Committee inductees on Monday at 11 a.m. ET and the Rule 5 Draft on Thursday at 10 a.m. ET.
Before the Pirates' front office and the rest of the baseball world set up shop at the Opryland Hotel, here is a quick look at where they stand.
Starting pitcher: This is the Pirates' most pressing issue, as they literally don't have a fifth starter on their roster right now. A.J. Burnett retired, and J.A. Happ signed with the Blue Jays. Their rotation depth has been ravaged by serious injuries, and top prospect Tyler Glasnow won't start the season in Pittsburgh. The Pirates will most likely seek another reclamation project on a one-year deal, but they could get creative to acquire a more proven mid-rotation option to slot in behind Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano.
First base: Alvarez is gone, leaving the Pirates with Michael Morse and Jake Goebbert. They could begin the year with Morse playing every day and wait for prospect Josh Bell's arrival. It's reasonable to assume the Bucs will pursue a left-handed platoon partner for Morse, if not a full-time starter to replace Alvarez. But the free-agent market is thin, and there aren't many big-name trade targets out there.
Bullpen: The Pirates' greatest strength last year was their dominant late-game relief corps, but they lost a few key Trade Deadline rentals (Joakim Soria and Joe Blanton) to free agency. If they keep closer Mark Melancon, they only need to fill a few spots. If they trade Melancon and promote Tony Watson to closer, they might want another setup man to complement Jared Hughes and Arquimedes Caminero.
Bench: Chris Stewart will return as the backup catcher, but it's fair to wonder if they might need more reliable alternatives off the bench -- or to step up if someone is injured -- at other positions. Right now, their reserves likely would include infielder Pedro Florimon, outfielder Keon Broxton, Goebbert, Stewart and one of their four "starting" infielders (Josh Harrison, Jung Ho Kang, Jordy Mercer, Neil Walker).
Who they can trade if necessary
Melancon: He was named the National League's best closer last season and has been a huge part of the Pirates' recent success. But he is projected by MLBTradeRumors.com to make $10 million in his final year of arbitration, and that money may be better spent elsewhere, especially with Watson looking like a more-than-capable closer-in-waiting.
Walker: The Pirates haven't been able to lock up the Pittsburgh Kid to a contract extension, and he'll be a free agent after next season. With Kang at third when healthy, they could use Harrison at second and send out Walker. Like Melancon, the Pirates don't need to trade Walker, and he will provide value no matter how high his salary climbs in arbitration. But Walker is reportedly being shopped around, so perhaps the hometown hero has played his last game with the Pirates.
Stewart: This is really an "if necessary" situation, because Stewart is everything you want in a backup catcher and teammate. He handles the pitching staff well, steals strikes behind the plate and he's turned into a solid singles hitter in Pittsburgh. But with Francisco Cervelli starting and strong-armed prospect Elias Diaz knocking on the door, Stewart might be available in the right deal, especially since he's a free agent after next season.
The Pirates' Top 10 Prospects, according to MLBPipeline.com, are Glasnow, Austin Meadows, Bell, Jameson Taillon, Alen Hanson, Reese McGuire, Harold Ramirez, Kevin Newman, Ke'Bryan Hayes and Cole Tucker.
Glasnow and Bell could contribute in the Majors at some point next season, if Glasnow sharpens his command and Bell's defense and power continue to improve. Neither is expected to break camp with the Pirates. If Taillon can put together a healthy spring and summer, it's not out of the question that he could also make his debut later next year. Hanson, a speedy middle infielder, might be the first to crack the big league roster.
Big contracts they might unload
The Pirates don't have many big contracts in the first place, and the relatively expensive players on their books -- Andrew McCutchen, Liriano -- aren't ones you want to trade. Melancon and Walker would fit the bill here, however.
The Pirates opened the 2015 season with a $90 million payroll, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts. That number will climb next year as they hand out raises to their players with guaranteed contracts and the eight others eligible for salary arbitration, perhaps pushing Pittsburgh's payroll past $100 million for the first time in franchise history.