PITTSBURGH -- Are the Pirates buyers or sellers? Is this the time for one last push around Andrew McCutchen, or is it the start of a rebuilding process?
So far, the Pirates' offseason has presented more questions than answers. Some clarity may come next week in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., site of baseball's annual Winter Meetings. Rumors will fly, and roster moves will follow. But in which direction will those transactions take the Pirates?
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Coming off consecutive losing seasons and facing steep competition in the National League Central, it might seem like the right time for the Pirates to part ways with pricy veterans, reap the reward of young talent and reload for 2019 and beyond.
Last year's Winter Meetings were defined by the move Huntington didn't make: trading McCutchen. Will the same be true this year?
If the Bucs move McCutchen, it would make sense to test the market for starter Gerrit Cole, super-utility man Josh Harrison, catcher Francisco Cervelli and starter Ivan Nova as well. But if the Pirates keep McCutchen -- the face of their franchise -- don't they owe him one last shot at the postseason?
In that case, general manager Neal Huntington will once again have to get creative under the confines of his small-market budget -- or simply hope that the Bucs' current options will improve significantly in 2018. The Pirates don't believe their "window" has closed, but what can they do to keep it open?
Offense: The Pirates were among the Majors' worst offensive teams last season, ranking 27th in average, 28th in OPS and runs scored, and 29th in slugging percentage and home runs. Their young pitching staff should improve through experience next season, but it won't matter much without run support. Above all, the Bucs need more out of the players they have. Another power bat -- possibly at third base -- would go a long way.
Left-handed reliever: The Pirates don't have an experienced lefty reliever on their roster other than closer Felipe Rivero. That will change before Spring Training, unless they decide they're comfortable with one of Steven Brault, Jack Leathersich or Nik Turley in the Opening Day bullpen. Brian Duensing, Jake McGee and Boone Logan would fit the bill, as would the recently non-tendered Xavier Cedeno.
Infield: Pittsburgh simply can't count on the return of third baseman Jungho Kang, who missed all of last season following a DUI arrest in South Korea. The Pirates also admitted last season they leaned too heavily on veteran David Freese, which means they could use someone to split time at the hot corner. That problem could be solved internally by switching Harrison between second and third and filling the gaps with utility men Adam Frazier and Sean Rodriguez.
Who they can trade if necessary
McCutchen: He bounced back last season with a summer surge at the plate, and his center-field defense improved after a concerning drop-off in 2016. He has one year left on his contract for a reasonable $14.5 million. The Pirates are not looking to deal him, but they will consider it for the right return. Thus, any trade would have to make short- and long-term sense for Pittsburgh.
Cole: This is a long shot, if only because the Pirates don't have a starter ready to replace Cole atop the rotation. It's more likely they would trade from their rotation depth, not from the top. Cole has two years of control remaining, and while he proved he was healthy last season, his 4.26 ERA and career-high 31 homers allowed lowered his value. Still, if someone is willing to sell the farm for Cole, the Pirates have to listen, considering he's two years away from free agency.
Harrison: Harrison might actually be the Pirates' most logical trade candidate, because they have plenty of depth in the infield with Freese, Frazier, Rodriguez and Max Moroff. But Harrison was their lone All-Star last season and their most valuable player by Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference.com. The thing the Pirates would miss most -- Harrison's skill at multiple positions -- makes him a valuable trade asset for teams in the market for any type of infield help.
According to MLBPipeline.com, the Pirates' Top 10 Prospects are outfielder Austin Meadows, right-handers Mitch Keller and Shane Baz, third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes, shortstops Cole Tucker and Kevin Newman, first baseman Will Craig, right-hander Nick Kingham, second baseman Kevin Kramer and right-hander Steven Jennings.
Keller, a potential top-of-the-rotation starter, is probably the most untouchable prospect in that group. Meadows and Kingham have the best chance to help next season, if they stay healthy. That's been the issue for Meadows, who is still perceived to be McCutchen's eventual successor in the outfield.
Rule 5 Draft
The Pirates have 37 players on their 40-man roster, so they could select someone in the Rule 5 Draft on Dec. 14. They did last year, taking lefty Tyler Webb before ultimately returning him to the Yankees in Spring Training.
Pittsburgh doesn't have a particularly high-profile Rule 5 Draft candidate, though someone might take a shot on right-hander Tyler Eppler, based on his Triple-A experience, hoping he'll stick in the back of a big league rotation or in the bullpen.
Big contracts they might unload
McCutchen is owed a team-high $14.5 million next season. After that is Cervelli, due $10.5 million after another injury-plagued season, followed by Harrison at $10.25 million. The Pirates owe several players raises, either through guaranteed contracts or the arbitration process, but nobody else is projected to earn more than $10 million next year.
The Pirates currently have an estimated $102 million committed to next season's Opening Day roster. That could change based on trades, signings and arbitration settlements, but it would be a franchise record. They may not stretch the budget much more after attendance declined again last season to 1,919,447 -- the franchise's lowest mark since 2010.