Will Bucs be any better in '13?
After the 2011 season, the Pirates had holes to fill at catcher, first base, shortstop, right field, and in the bullpen and starting rotation.
A year later, management still is looking for answers at those positions.
In each of the past two seasons, the Pirates have improved their win total and (for a while, at least) were competitive in the division race. Yet there are not many sure things on the roster.
Who will be in the lineup next year? Center fielder Andrew McCutchen, of course. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez and second baseman Neil Walker. Pitchers A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez. After that, there is some uncertainty in both the short and long terms.
The 2012 payroll for the Pirates' 40-man roster was $61.375 million, which ranked among the five lowest in the majors.
Payroll will nudge upward next year due to salary hikes that are built into the system. But overall, management will not abandon its frugal approach.
“We've got some decisions to make this offseason about how we'll allocate our resources,” general manager Neal Huntington said.
The Pirates have six players — Burnett, Rodriguez, McCutchen, Clint Barmes and Jose Tabata — under contract for 2013 who will account for $27 million. That figure does not include an additional $13.5 million, which will be paid by the New York Yankees and Houston Astros to account for the full salaries of Burnett and Rodriguez.
Alvarez has a $700,000 option for 2013 that the team surely will pick up.
This offseason, the Pirates have nine players eligible for arbitration, including Walker, Joel Hanrahan, Garrett Jones and Neil Walker. The dollars will pile up quickly.
“It's not like we have a middle reliever going through arbitration,” Huntington said. “It's some pretty good players who've had some pretty good seasons. We're going to have our challenges.
“We'll have to look at what our cost alternatives are, what production we'll give up to go with a cheaper option, where can we get better, and (whether) the player's value is appropriate to what he'll get in arbitration. It's awfully early for me to begin to speculate — publicly anyway — on what decisions we might make.”
Although Huntington didn't tip his hand, the Pirates do have a plan for shaping next season's roster. Some of their moves are easy to predict, others were hinted at during the players' exit meetings with management.
Huntington already has shown he can pull together value-priced and overlooked players to form an effective relief corps. This winter will bring another overhaul, probably beginning with the closer.
After Hanrahan racked up 40 saves in 2011, his salary jumped from $1.4 million to $4.1 million without going through arbitration. After getting 36 saves this season, Hanrahan can expect to make around $7 million next year.
That's too pricey for the Pirates. Trading Hanrahan at the winter meetings could net a couple of players — a catcher or another starting pitcher? — and help keep the payroll in check.
Hisanori Takahashi and Chad Qualls are not likely to return. Chris Resop might get about $1.5 million in arbitration, which would be a lot to pay a 30-year-old middle reliever with a 3.91 ERA and a 1.425 WHIP.
Free agent Jason Grilli ($1.1 million this year) put up solid stats — his 13.81 strikeouts per nine innings was fourth best among NL relievers. The righty will want something like a two-year, $10 million deal, which the Pirates would consider if they trade Hanrahan and make Grilli the closer.
There are several internal options who'll return to fill the other spots. Jared Hughes, Tony Watson, Chris Leroux, Bryan Morris and Justin Wilson each will make around the $490,000 major league minimum salary in 2013.
Burnett, who turns 36 in January, is entering the final year of his contract. Rodriguez, who'll turn 34 in January, has a $13 million player option for 2014. Neither figures to be a long-term part of the rotation.
The other three spots next season are up for grabs. Charlie Morton ($2.445 million), who had Tommy John surgery in June, isn't expected to be back until at least the All-Star break. Nonetheless, he'll still get a small bump in salary.
When Kevin Correia signed a two-year deal in 2011, management promised him a chance to be more than a No. 5 starter. He put up a pair of 12-11 records and pitched well in spots. But being exiled to the bullpen wounded Correia's pride and likely cost him at least $300,000 in bonus money.
Management claims it found no takers when it tried to trade Correia after Rodriguez arrived. Don't be surprised if Correia's agent has a lot more success this winter in the free-agent market.
After the regular-season finale, Jeff Karstens said his goodbyes, not expecting to return to Pittsburgh. Karstens ($3.1 million) is in his final year of arbitration eligibility and likely will be non-tendered.
James McDonald ($502,500) will be back, but his role is uncertain after his second-half meltdown.
Rookies Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson will be in the rotation derby in spring training. One, perhaps both, could make the club, depending on whether the Pirates are able to lure free-agent starters.
Gerrit Cole, the top draft pick in 2011, probably will make his big league debut at some point next season. Jameson Taillon, a first-rounder in 2010, still is a year or so away.
Manager Clint Hurdle has indicated that Mike McKenry ($485,000) is, at this point, the starting catcher in 2013. That will happen only if Huntington fails to find a better option through free agency or trades, or if prospect Tony Sanchez is deemed not ready for the majors.
There is zero chance the Pirates will pick up Rod Barajas' $3.5 million option, although the 37-year-old told the Tribune-Review he would be willing to return for less. Even so, Barajas' days as a regular player are over.
The Pirates will bring back first baseman Garrett Jones ($2.25 million), who hit .274 with a career-best 27 homers. Jones, 31, is arbitration eligible and will get at least $5 million next year.
Neil Walker ($500,000) has reached Super 2 status and will make at least $3 million next season. The Pirates have tried to sign him to a multiyear contract, but Walker figures he will be in line for more cash if he goes the arbitration route.
Among NL second baseman, Walker ranks sixth in batting average, third in on-base percentage, second in OPS, fifth in homers and fourth in RBI. At 27 years old, his stats are comparable to those of Michael Young, Adam Kennedy and Brandon Phillips at the same age.
Barmes is under contract for $5.5 million next season. He was overpaid at $5 million this year, when he batted .229 with a .593 OPS.
If the infield is not broken up after this season, it certainly could be dismantled after 2013. Neither Barmes nor Jones looks to be a long-term fit. Walker's escalating salary will make him a trade candidate unless he is signed to a team-friendly contract. If Alvarez has enough service time after the 2013 season, he can void his contract and renegotiate or go through arbitration.
The first of McCutchen's million-dollar payouts begins next year, when he'll get $4.5 million. His $51.5 million deal runs through 2017, with a $14.75 million club option for 2018.
The corner outfielders next year will be some combination of Alex Presley, Travis Snider, Jose Tabata and Starling Marte. Tabata, in the middle of a six-year, $15 million contract, will make $1 million. The others will get something around the minimum salary.
Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7811.