PITTSBURGH -- The national spotlight shines on the postseason in October, but for the Pirates, it’s time to focus on the offseason ahead.
Coming off a disappointing, 69-win season, the Bucs' front office has a substantial to-do list. With the Hot Stove temporarily on the backburner, Pirates executives must complete their own internal evaluation, make some hard decisions about what comes next, hire a manager and fill out their coaching staff.
“We are in the midst of assessing everything,” general manager Neal Huntington said on Sunday. “It’s something that we do every year, but on the heels of a 90-plus loss season, it’s that much more appropriate.”
When that’s all over, the Pirates can set out to improve a team in need of repair after four straight years without postseason baseball. Here are a few key offseason questions, events and dates to keep in mind.
When will they hire a manager?
Don’t expect that news until later this month at the earliest. Most likely, the Pirates will take their time with the search and interview process then announce an official decision after the World Series. There’s no sense in rushing through such an important move, and non-playoff teams rarely make news during the postseason, anyway.
• Pirates embark on first manager search since '10
What happens to the coaching staff?
It’ll be determined officially after the Pirates hire a new manager and consider his input. For now, all we know is that pitching coach Ray Searage and bench coach Tom Prince won’t be back next season. The rest of the coaches are candidates to return, but there’s still a chance they could be affected by the hiring of a new manager or new coaches to replace Searage and Prince.
Keeping a few coaches on board could help the continuity from one manager to another. It’s probably fair to expect that hitting coaches Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz, at least, will stay on board. Eckstein and Cruz were hired just last offseason, and they did excellent work with young hitters like Kevin Newman, Bryan Reynolds and Josh Bell.
Which players will become free agents? Will anyone receive a qualifying offer?
It’s a short list: Francisco Liriano, Melky Cabrera and Lonnie Chisenhall. (Yes, Chisenhall, the free-agent signing who did not play all season due to a broken hand and calf strains.) None of them will receive a qualifying offer. Some players have vouched for Liriano and Cabrera to return, but they’ll want to evaluate their options once free agency begins.
Which players have options, and for how much?
Two big club options to handle within five days of the end of the World Series: center fielder Starling Marte for a team-high $11.5 million ($2 million buyout) and Chris Archer for $9 million ($1.75 million buyout). Picking up Marte’s option is a no-brainer, as he remains a highly productive player at a critical defensive position. The Bucs also seem inclined to pick up Archer’s option despite his struggles, and indeed, it makes some sense to take a gamble on his upside rather than paying to release him.
Both players also have club options for the 2021 season, Marte at $12.5 million and Archer at $11 million. After that, they will be free agents.
The Pirates also have a $1.25 million club option on right-hander Tom Koehler, the former Marlins starter who moved to the bullpen then spent this season recovering from shoulder surgery. Assuming Koehler is healthy enough to pitch, he’ll be in big league camp.
How much space do they have on the 40-man roster? Who might lose their spot?
The Pirates don’t have any open spots, and they’ll face a real crunch when they must remove players from the 60-day injured list. They currently have nine players on the 60-day IL, and they’ll want to make room for eight -- everyone but Chisenhall. That list of players includes Archer, Nick Burdi, Kyle Crick, Chad Kuhl, Edgar Santana, Jason Martin, Gregory Polanco and Jameson Taillon (out for 2020).
Between that jam and the Rule 5 Draft protection deadline, the Pirates will have to remove as many as 10-12 players currently occupying a spot on their roster. September-specific additions like catcher Steven Baron, Jake Elmore and Corban Joseph would seem to be at risk.
Relievers Dovydas Neverauskas and Montana DuRapau weren’t called up in September despite the staff’s struggles, which may not bode well for their future with the organization. There are several other relievers who came and went throughout the season, late-season waiver claims and emergency depth arms who could be removed and replaced.
Who is a non-tender candidate? When’s that deadline?
There might not be any non-tender candidates on the Pirates’ roster. Erik González struggled, but maybe he showed enough in September to stick heading into next spring. Elias Díaz had a bad season all around, but it would be unlike the Pirates to give up on a player after one tough year. The rest of their arbitration-eligible players -- Keone Kela, Taillon, Bell, Adam Frazier, Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove, Chad Kuhl and Michael Feliz -- should hold important roles going forward.
The “non-tender deadline” is Dec. 2.
Who needs to be protected from the Rule 5 Draft? When’s that deadline?
Generally, any player who was drafted out of college in 2016, drafted out of high school in ’15 or signed as an international amateur free agent in ’15 is eligible to be selected in this year’s Rule 5 Draft if the player is not protected on the 40-man roster.
So, there are a handful of interesting prospects the Pirates must protect -- Ke’Bryan Hayes and Oneil Cruz chief among them. Expect Pittsburgh to also protect first-base prospect Will Craig, a first-round pick in 2016. Pitching prospects Blake Cederlind and Cody Ponce could make the cut; hard-throwing reliever Geoff Hartlieb, called up earlier this season, would have been eligible. Outfield prospect Lolo Sanchez is also eligible, but he’s only 20 years old and he struggled at Class A Advanced Bradenton after a strong showing with Class A Greensboro.
The Rule 5 Draft protection deadline is Nov. 20.
What are their positions of need?
Pitching, catching and power, in that order. If they really want to contend, they need at least one above-average starter -- and they’ll still have to hope their returning rotation arms take big steps forward. There’s also a massive hole in the bullpen due to the arrest of Felipe Vázquez. The Bucs can count on Kela to close and bet on Richard Rodriguez, Kyle Crick, Feliz and Chris Stratton holding some sort of relief roles, but do they want any of those pitchers working the eighth inning on Opening Day?
Jacob Stallings had a nice season as the Pirates’ backup catcher, but they could use a front-line option in case Díaz doesn’t bounce back. A veteran catcher certainly wouldn’t hurt, especially given the relative inexperience of Pittsburgh’s pitchers.
As for the power? They’ll hope most of it comes from within, in the form of a healthy and productive Polanco. They could do worse than an Opening Day lineup that starts with Newman, Reynolds, Marte, Bell and Polanco.
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.