PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates haven't been major players in the free-agent market in recent years, but now they will curtail their activity.
Does that sound weird?
Well, it makes perfect sense in light of too many episodes of buyer's remorse, and expectations of their heralded farm system turning the corner.
In evaluating the team's personnel situation, the most critical contract is that of general manager Neal Huntington. He was given a three-year extension based on the 2011 improvement, but a similar small step in '12 was unsatisfactory; lest he engineer a big step, he may not survive that pact and could take manager Clint Hurdle, entering the last year of his deal, with him.
Huntington thus will want to be more aggressive and creative -- and more persuasive. In the past, he heard too many of the free agents he had courted say, "No." When the Pirates were riding high in the middle of the 2012 season, there was a lot of talk of having changed the culture and game-wide perception of the team and of the city. The validity of that will be put to the test.
Technically, the Bucs have a very fluid roster, with only six players already under contract for 2013. Realistically, they have very little flexibility to go outside for help because of the financial commitments to those six. Monies coming off the books are offset by the $8 million due late-season acquisition Wandy Rodriguez and the $4 million raise for Andrew McCutchen in the second-year of his six-year deal.
Pittsburgh is usually drawn to the lower end of the free-agent pool anyway, and that will be an even less attractive option in what is being viewed as a thinner overall market. However, the Bucs' biggest external need is veteran, dependable bench help, and second-tier free agency is a perfect source for that.
Huntington will have to come up with a Plan A after Plan B didn't work out so well last winter. As bizarre as it might seem, each free agent he signed was of the defunct Type B variety, and his name also started with that letter of the alphabet: Erik Bedard was erratic until drawing his release, Rod Barajas was a rock behind the plate but had trouble hitting the rock and Clint Barmes had to get hot the last two months to finish at .229.
Of the three free agents of their own, the Pirates are most inclined to re-sign reliever Jason Grilli, and least inclined to retain right-handed starter Kevin Correia. Barajas falls somewhere in-between, because the Bucs can probably have him for the asking: He won't have a market, has already said he's willing to re-sign for less than the $3.5 million option the Bucs will decline, and he would continue to be a valuable mentor to Michael McKenry and the team's younger pitchers.
Qualifying offers for free agents have been set at $13.3 million -- per new Collective Bargaining Agreement guidelines, the average of the 125 highest 2012 contracts -- and the Bucs clearly won't be on that playing field. The qualifying-offer process replaces Types A and B to set up Draft pick compensation for free agents who sign elsewhere, so it doesn't really relate to the Pirates' situations.
Players can start signing with other clubs after midnight ET on Friday.
Barajas' option, for what would be a $500,000 raise, will be declined. Pedro Alvarez's $700,000 option following a 30-homer season is a no-brainer.
Several arbitration-eligible players are non-tender candidates:
Charlie Morton ($2,445,000 in 2012) will miss at least half the season after Tommy John surgery; Jeff Karstens' ($3.1 million) fragility concerns Huntington; Gaby Sanchez ($490,000) has been on a too-long decline to justify a fat raise. It wouldn't be a total shock if the Bucs instead passed on the other platoon first baseman, Garrett Jones ($2,250,000), despite his career year (27 homers, 86 RBIs).
Areas of need
McKenry has played himself into management's consciousness, but numerous questions swirl around him. Is he better as a No. 2, so do the Pirates get a No. 1? If he can be a No. 1, do they hold onto Barajas for No. 2 or shop for someone more used to coming off the bench? The free-agent ranks will teem with Barajas-like vets.
A.J. Burnett and Rodriguez are locked in, and James McDonald will get a shot to prove his brutal second half was a blip. The Pirates need veteran insurance in case neither Kyle McPherson nor Jeff Locke stick -- one or two depending on the decision on Karstens.
Jose Tabata ($12.5 million for four remaining years) has a very tradable contract, and the Bucs could make a move for an everyday prime-time guy to jam the revolving door also involving Travis Snider and Jones.
Barring an unlikely decline from the season-ending $61.4 million, the Pirates will go into 2013 with their highest season-opening payroll. Guarantees on the books and projected arbitration raises put it around $63 million. Huntington has about $5 million to spend, which makes him a very minor player. Look for a slew of Minor League make-good deals with veterans.