Over at SB Nation today, Grant Brisbee has a good piece up about the Pirates' "perfectly whelming" offseason that addresses something I've wanted to talk about for a while: the perception that the Pirates have mostly been sitting on their hands over the winter.
The Pirates haven't done a lot over the winter, of course, but as Brisbee points out, their roster has been in a constant state of flux pretty much throughout the entire Neal Huntington era. As things stand today, the Pirates' opening day starting rotation will be 40% different from last year's opening day rotation (60% different if you don't count AJ Burnett, who was on the disabled list), plus they're going to trot out a new starting catcher and an outfield that only has Andrew McCutchen as a constant from last April. That's quite a bit of turnover from one Opening Day to the next without even considering the bullpen.
The question that gets asked about most teams at this point of the winter, when all of the wheeling and dealing is done, is whether or not the team in question has made themselves better over the winter than they were in the previous season. It's easy (and not entirely unfair) to look at the Pirate team that tanked in August and September of last year, see only a few cosmetic changes, and wonder why there's any reason to think that the Pirates could be better in 2013 than they were in 2012. The reality, though, is that for teams in the Pirates' situation, any significant improvement has to come from young players making themselves better and not from outside help. The reason the 2013 Pirates could be better than the 2012 Pirates isn't that Russell Martin or Francisco Liriano or Mark Melancon or Jerry Sands will put the PIrates over the top, it's that Starling Marte could turn into anything between Andrew McCutchen and Chris Duffy, that further evolution by Pedro Alvarez will turn him into a borderline elite power hitter, and that Travis Snider is still only 25 with a chance to a productive every day player.
I feel like I say this every winter, but the Pirates can't ever really go into the off-season with the goal of adding elite talent that will transform the team. What they have to try to do each winter is to find the right players to build a supporting cast that's good enough to help support a contending team if the younger, more talented players have the breakthroughs that the team is hoping for. There are plenty of lessons to be learned from 2012, but some of the more obvious conclusions to draw from various points of last season are that the rotation was desperately lacking in the second half of the season, that Alex Presley and Jose Tabata are not every day Major Leaguers, and that Rod Barajas sucked.
Instead of asking if the Pirates got better this winter, let's ask a different question. If Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez both hit 30 home runs and Neil Walker puts up a .768 OPS at second base, do the Pirates have a supporting cast that can turn help buoy those performances into a winning or contending team? Last year, the answer was no. This year? Well, we'll see.