There and back again: What do the Pirates need to do this winter?

When looking back on the Pittsburgh Pirates' 2013 season and ahead to their 2014 season, there's just one question to ask: How did the Pirates get to 94 wins in 2013 and what do they need to do to get back and beyond in 2014? In the immediate aftermath of the Pirates' loss, there was a lot of goodwill surrounding the Pirates. The general sentiment was that the Pirates good young players, a great farm system, and that that makes them more or less a team on the rise. No individual part of that is untrue, but the reality is that things are more complicated than that. Below, from Baseball-Reference, is a list of every Pirate position player that had a WAR of more than 0.5 this year.

  Age WAR ▾
Andrew McCutchen 26 8.2
Starling Marte 24 5.4
Russell Martin 30 4.3
Neil Walker# 27 3.9
Pedro Alvarez* 26 3.4
Jordy Mercer 26 2.0
Jose Tabata 24 1.2
Clint Barmes 34 1.1
Marlon Byrd 35 1.0
Gaby Sanchez 29 0.8
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/24/2013.

And here are their pitchers with positive WAR:

  Age WAR ▾
Francisco Liriano* 29 3.0
Mark Melancon 28 2.0
Justin Wilson* 25 1.7
A.J. Burnett 36 1.7
Tony Watson* 28 1.4
Gerrit Cole 22 1.3
Jeff Locke* 25 1.1
Vin Mazzaro 26 0.9
Jason Grilli 36 0.8
Brandon Cumpton 24 0.8
Charlie Morton 29 0.5
Kyle Farnsworth 37 0.3
Jeanmar Gomez 25 0.2
Bryan Morris 26 0.2
Ryan Reid 28 0.2
Wandy Rodriguez* 34 0.2
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/24/2013.

There are a few interesting things here, but the first is this: the 2013 Pirates were not that young. The only position player contributors under the age of 25 were Starling Marte and Jose Tabata. Russell Martin, Clint Barmes, and Marlon Byrd are all over 30, Barmes and Byrd are free agents now, and Martin is a free agent next year. The pitching staff doesn't look impressive at all if you go by WAR. That really drives home how important defense was to this team, I think. Gerrit Cole and Brandon Cumpton are the only contributors under 25 there, with AJ Burnett, Jason Grilli, Kyle Farnsworth, and Wandy Rodriguez all over 30. 

This leads me to this conclusion: there are only three players from the 2013 team that I would say are absolutely indespensible going forwards: Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gerrit Cole. That doesn't mean that I think the Pirates can just nuke the other 22 roster spots, of course, just that the other players are players that can be either replaced or upgraded upon over the next six months or year or two years or three years. I think a lot of Pirate fans would put Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez in with McCutchen, Marte, and Cole, but I think that we're seeing both Walker and Alvarez at their respective peaks right now. This is more or less the same as the point that Charlie made right after the season; it doesn't do any good to get attached to marginal players now that the Pirates have a winning team. 

That means that our actual question this off-season is this: how do the Pirates get back to the playoffs in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018? I think that this specific Pirate team, the one that we watched in 2013, has a shelf life of one more year. Russell Martin is signed for one more year, Francisco Liriano is signed for one more year, Jason Grilli is signed for one more year, and while I'm not sure that guys like Alvarez and Walker will get better down the road, I'm not saying that they're going to get immediately worse, either. That means that the first concern of the off-season is filling in the gaps with only 2013 in mind. The first two names that immediately come to mind in that regard are AJ Burnett and Marlon Byrd. 

Without Burnett, the Pirates' rotation next year looks something like this: Liriano, Cole, Morton, Rodriguez, [Locke, Cumpton, Pimentel]. That's not really a bad rotation, but it leaves something to be desired. Liriano has never put two good seasons together. The Pirates have plenty of things going in their favor, of course, because they're the ones that got him to where he was this year and they've still got PNC Park and they'll still have the defensive shifts behind him, but Liriano has historically not been a very consistent performer and it's worth at least noting that. I think Gerrit Cole is probably poised for a big breakout next year and I'm sure the Pirates would agree with that, but Cole is still a young pitcher and young pitchers are scary. Charlie Morton is still Charlie Morton. Wandy Rodriguez will be 35 and coming off of a season in which he missed more than half of a year with an arthritic elbow. The team says he'll be fine and maybe he will be, but how much can you count on him? Locke presents the obvious questions after his second half meltdown. Cumpton was nothing but excellent in a Pirate uniform, but there is littie in his minor league record to suggest that he should get a regular rotation spot. Pimentel has tantalizing stuff and is out of options, so he'll likely be on the club one way or another, but he was pretty uneven across Double-A and Triple-A in 2013. If things go well for the Pirates, we'll have Jameson Taillon to talk about at mid-season, but that's getting ahead of ourselves. 

All of this is to say that having another year of AJ Burnett would be a nice stabilizing factor for these Pirates. Burnett had a legitimately good season with the Pirates in 2013; he had the best strikeout rate of his long career and the best K-rate in the National League among qualified pitchers. He had the best K/BB ratio of his long career, and the lowest home run rate. He made some bad starts, but he made more really excellent starts. I have some questions about his durability at this point in his career, but I really don't doubt that Burnett could give the Pirates another 175-200 good innings in 2014. All indications continue to point to Burnet wanting to remain a Pirate if he decides to pitch next year; if he does, that makes things considerably easier for the Pirates this winter. It'd also be to the Pirates' advantage if Burnett decides he wants to go year-to-year; both his age and the Pirates' pitching-rich farm system mean that it's easy to determine Burnett's value to the Bucs in 2014 but it's harder to do so in 2015. 

The second, and more difficult question, is how to fill out the two open corner slots on the field. The struggles and/or health problems of Garrett Jones, Travis Snider, and Jose Tabata created a lot of first base and right field problems for the Pirates in 2013, and at more or less the last possible second the Pirates decided to go for outside help in the form of Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau. Byrd worked out brilliantly; he was arguably the Pirates' best player down the stretch, and his home run off of Johnny Cueto in the wild card game may be the moment from this season that lives on for forever in the memory of Pirate fans. Morneau was more or less Garrett Jones all over again, with a nice glove. Both players are free agents now, so the Pirates have some decisions to make. 

I suspect that Byrd will be difficult to bring back. Next year is his age-36 season and he's never signed a big contract. Coming off of a career year, this is absolutely his one and only chance to sign a two or three year deal that would more than double his career earnings to this point (he's made about $22 million in his career). There are a couple of reasons that doing that would be a bad idea for the Pirates. One is simply that Byrd's been up and down over the course of his career. After some great years in Texas, he went to Chicago and struggled, then cratered in Boston and needed to take the long road back to being a productive big league player. He was fantastic both for the Mets and Pirates in 2013, but it's hard to believe that that power surge is going to stick at his age.

The other problem with a long-term deal for Byrd is Gregory Polanco. Polanco has gone from being off of the radar before the 2012 season to being one of the top outfield prospects in all of baseball. At this point in his minor league career, he's essentially Starling Marte with the dials cranked to 11. He's left-handed, he's younger for his levels, he's got a bit more pop, and he's got a really promising eye at the plate. He didn't really excel after his promotion to Double-A this year, but he's blasting the walls off of the Dominican Winter League right now. Obviously toolsy outfield prospects are far from sure things, but there's a chance that by mid-season in 2014, the Pirates have their right fielder of the future in PNC Park. So long as Polanco's waiting in the wings, signing Byrd to anything more than a one-year deal doesn't make sense for the Pirates and a one-year deal doesn't make much sense to Byrd. 

If the Pirates do really like Polanco, they could also go with a Tabata/Snider platoon in right field for the first half of the season and make a trade if Polanco's not ready. That tactic didn't really work well this year, but Tabata looked pretty good in September and there might be some reason to think that Snider's toe problems contributed to his absence of power this year. It's not an idea situation, but if Polanco is as good as he's looked thus far in the minors, the Pirates might not need an ideal situation in right, if that makes sense. In that case, though, they really should do something about first base. Garrett Jones seems like more or less of a slam-dunk non-tender candidate at this point (he's due for a raise on $4.5 million through arbitration, so, likely in the neighborhood of $6-7 million). I feel relatively sure the Pirates could have Morneau back at about the same price for a one-year deal as he tries to rebuild value, but I'm not sure that they should want him back at that price.  It's certainly possible that every day that passes puts Morneau one day further beyond his concussion and closer to a day when he'll be a 30-homer threat again (and I hope that's true for Morneau's sake whether signs with the Pirates or not) but there's just not evidence to support that hypothesis at this point. I don't think that bringing Morneau back would necessarily be a waste because the Pirates can probably afford to keep Gaby Sanchez for another year and a Morneau/Sanchez platoon would probably be pretty decent at first base, it's just that I think that the Pirates can probably find the approximate contribution of a player like Jones or Morneau on the scrap heap for cheaper than what either of those two players are likely to cost. 

There is a danger inherent in bringing Burnett and one of Byrd or Morneau back for a year and playing for 2014, though, and that's that there will suddenly be quite a bit of retooling to do when the 2014 season is over. If the Pirates go ahead with that strategy and that strategy only, Martin, Liriano, Burnett, Byrd/Morneau, Morton, Rodrigez, and Grilli are all likely to be free agents or retired after the 2014 season. As of this winter, it seems like there are logical hypothetical fills for those holes (Tony Sanchez for Martin, Polanco for the outfield, Alex Dickerson for first base, maybe, Taillon, Kingham, and maybe even Glasnow for the rotation, etc.), but none of those are sure things at all. 

That means that the big concern, at least for me, this winter is that if the Pirates focus on maintaining where they were in 2013 for the purpose of making a run in 2014, it's possible that they can dig a hole for themselves for the future. It's easy on one hand to say that this is a Pirate team that should be primarily focused on 2014 and that's absolutely true, but watching teams like the Nationals this past season also makes it clear that one good season doesn't guarantee a second, and sometimes it's well beyond a front office's control when things go south. If the Pirates only move to maintain this winter, then suffer a key injury or two early next year, they could be staring at a 75-80 season with a ton of work to do over the next winter. It's true to say that they had good luck on the free agent market and in the bargain bin last winter, but that's been a traditionally unreliable route for the team (look no further than Rod Barajas and Erik Bedard). 

I don't really want anyone to mistake what I'm saying here: I do think the Pirates should bring AJ Burnett back, and I do think they should probably try to get Byrd to take a one-year deal, though I doubt he'll be amenable to that. If that's all they do, it won't be a bad winter because their farm system, as currently constructed, is awfully deep and it seems likely that there will be a bunch of help coming starting at mid-season in 2014 and running on indefinitely. It's just that making minor moves to maintain a status quo this winter is the exact sort of thing that makes me nervous; baseball will not stand still and wait for the Pirates to win a World Series. It won't be a bad winter or a disastrous one if the Pirates main focus is on maintaining the 2013 team for another run in 2014, but it won't be an exceptionally good one, either. At this point, I'm kind of expecting a little bit more from this front office. The Pirates have come a long way, but that doesn't mean that the road back to the NLDS is an easy one. 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.

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