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Bucs look toward 2014 with flexibility for offseason

Pirates have control of most key contributors to 94-win regular season, playoff run

PITTSBURGH -- When the sun set on the Pirates' breakthrough 2013 season with a loss in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Cardinals, there was a lot of understandable remorse in Busch Stadium's visiting clubhouse.

However, one regret not felt by anyone was the sense the Bucs had missed a one-shot chance at the ultimate prize, that they had gone all-in for the big score and were on their way back to Square One.

PITTSBURGH -- When the sun set on the Pirates' breakthrough 2013 season with a loss in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Cardinals, there was a lot of understandable remorse in Busch Stadium's visiting clubhouse.

However, one regret not felt by anyone was the sense the Bucs had missed a one-shot chance at the ultimate prize, that they had gone all-in for the big score and were on their way back to Square One.

Nothing could be further from the reality of the Pirates' emergence from 20 years of losing. It was not the product of a spending spree that could not be maintained, but of an organizational agenda that laid the foundation for sustained success.

Even one of the players least likely to be back in 2014, shortstop Clint Barmes, remarked on his way into winter, "There is a lot of talent here. This will be a special team for years."

In the language of the offseason, the Bucs are "in control." With only a couple of significant exceptions, the club has a contractual hold over every member of the cast that contributed to a 94-win season. Many of those key players are arbitration-eligible, potentially leaving their salaries in the control of a third party. But even here general manager Neal Huntington can make the call by not tendering contracts to players whose production projects unfavorably to their salaries.

Huntington has never before been in this position of strength. It is his perfect storm.

"We will evaluate why we fell short of our ultimate goal and do everything in our power to keep this organization moving forward," Huntington said. "We'll explore the free-agent market, trades, how to maximize the progression of guys coming out of our [Minor League] system."

The landscape approaching 2014 is the same as it had been heading into the stretch of '13: This is a team without glaring holes, only some minor leaks. Even the most obvious leak is the same -- power bats at first and in right -- since the two short-term solutions (Justin Morneau, Marlon Byrd ) are free agents.

Counting usually reliable industry projections for arbitration-eligible players, the Pirates have approximately $62 million committed to 14 core players -- after ending 2013 with a club-record payroll approaching $80 million. Cracking the nine-figure ceiling in '14 is a definite possibility, supported by the slice of MLB's bigger national TV pie.

"Whatever we get will go toward payroll," vowed Huntington, who cautioned the Pirates won't be the only team reaping the windfall of a jump in the TV share of as much as $25 million. "It's not like we found a whole new pot of money and nobody else has."

In other words, the competition for talent remains the same. You may have more chips, but so do the other guys. You still have to be careful about where you let the chips fall.

Arbitration-eligible: 3B Pedro Alvarez, 1B/RF Garrett Jones, RHP Vin Mazzaro, C Michael McKenry, RHP Mark Melancon, RHP Charlie Morton, OF Felix Pie, 1B Gaby Sanchez, OF Travis Snider, 2B Neil Walker

Free agents: SS Clint Barmes, RHP A.J. Burnett, C John Buck, OF Marlon Byrd, RHP Kyle Farnsworth, RHP Jeff Karstens, 1B Justin Morneau

Rotation: Wild cards abound here, leading off with whether Burnett will decide to continue his career and, if so, whether the Pirates can keep him -- potentially two questions with one answer, given his word he would not want to pitch anywhere else. One certainty: His blow-up over being bypassed for that Game 5 start has blown over.

Other wild cards are whether Jeff Locke will mimic his first-half performance or James McDonald's irreversible fade, and whether Wandy Rodriguez will return to health. Rodriguez has a $13 million player option, and the team that would be happiest for him to not exercise it is Houston, which would be on the hook for $5.5 million.

Francisco Liriano's 2014 option vested at $6 million, a $5 million raise the Bucs consider a good deal for a 16-game winner. His obvious challenge is putting together consecutive strong seasons for the first time in his career. Morton wasted no time re-establishing himself after recovering from Tommy John surgery. Gerrit Cole has a splashy rookie half-season on which to build and, by midseason, could be joined by Jameson Taillon, the 1-A in the Bucs' tandem of high-ceiling pitching prospects.

Bullpen: When Jason Grilli (33 saves in 35 opportunities) and Mark Melancon (16 of 21) weren't alternating as closers, they formed a steely end-game tandem. They'll be counted on to reprise that act, with their late-season struggles attributed to workloads hopefully eased by more innings from the starters.

Other incumbents are lefties Justin Wilson and Tony Watson, and righties Vin Mazzaro, Bryan Morris and Jeanmar Gomez. Stolmy Pimentel, Ryan Reid and a recovered Jared Hughes offer added depth. That's a lot of live arms. Teams seldom keep bullpens intact from one season to the next and, indeed, Huntington said, "This is an area we can trade from."

Catcher: Russell Martin remains the No. 1, but he will have a new caddy in Tony Sanchez, who will reduce the veteran's workload from the 120 games he caught in 2013 while interning to assume the job in '15. McKenry, the extremely popular and hard-working gamer, becomes a candidate to be non-tendered.

First base: This is a Square One spot. The Bucs' dissatisfaction with the Sanchez-Jones tandem (17 home runs and 69 RBIs in 497 at-bats while playing first) was betrayed with the late-August move for Morneau -- who also wasn't seen as a long-term solution given his lack of power. Giving Morneau a more extended chance would be pricey -- he just played out a six-year, $80 million deal, and at 32 could still command eight figures.

There could be more attractive left-handed hitters on the open market: James Loney and Kendrys Morales, the latter a switch-hitter who had a strong comeback season (23 homers, 80 RBIs) in Seattle.

Second base: Walker comes off a disappointing hot-and-cold season, but remains a centerpiece of the team. In fact, when the Bucs talk about having a lot of room for improvement even after a 94-win season, much of that focus falls on Walker. His defense is solid, often spectacular, and there is every indication he can yet grow into a dangerous switch-hitter with more reps from the right side.

Shortstop: It's Jordy Mercer time. The Pirates have been very meticulous in nurturing him properly and are comfortable giving him the job entering 2014. He has had some growing pains, both in the field and at bat, but now he is fully grown.

Barmes presents an enigma. An exemplary team player, Barmes would provide the ideal veteran backup -- the kind of presence the Pirates tried this year with Brandon Inge -- but if he still feels he has regular play in him, he won't accept the necessary pay cut from his two-year, $10.5 million contract implied by that role. Manager Clint Hurdle will have to do the selling job here if the Pirates want to retain Barmes' savvy.

If it isn't Barmes, the Bucs will once again have to look outside for shortstop depth. Josh Harrison could return for support at second and third, but would be challenged in the hole.

Third base: Alvarez is on the verge of figuring out the whole deal. Tying for the league lead with 36 homers and a 100-RBI season have given him the assured foundation to perfect the subtler aspects of his game -- such as his approaches with two strikes and against southpaws. He may even be at the right place to finally take ownership of the cleanup spot. It was also very impressive to see him end the season at his peak physical condition; it spoke of his work ethic and dedication.

Outfield: Starling Marte, with that first full season under his belt; Andrew McCutchen, with possibly a National League Most Valuable Player Award on his mantle -- left and center field, forget it, it may be the best combo in the Majors.

Which brings up right. From what he showed in September -- when filling in for the injured Marte in left -- Jose Tabata deserves his old job back. An outfield of Marte-McCutchen-Tabata would dust off the master plan the Pirates probably drew up years ago. The caveat there is that it would rule out Byrd, who seemed irreplaceable in September, from the viewpoints of both production and demeanor.

Byrd is a presence. But after his emphatic comeback season, he will seek, and deserves, a regular job. If the Bucs can't promise him that, he will depart. But if the team does make that commitment to him, it will again keep Tabata -- who, including options, has six years remaining on a very team-friendly contract-- on the outside.

The solution could be a major trade, with Tabata as the centerpiece.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Pedro Alvarez, Jason Grilli, Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, Mark Melancon, Jose Tabata