Viewing the Pirates' future through a new prism
Months before the 2013 season ended, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington was plotting a blueprint for 2014.
There are holes to be filled in the lineup — right field and first base, in particular — and the starting rotation. Coming off the most successful season in 21 years, Huntington can take a slightly different approach when using the tools of free agency, trades and the club's minor league system.
“That process is a lot more fun than it's been in the past,” Huntington said. “One eye is on the present, but we always have to keep the other eye on the future. That's our job in the front office.”
There's a special alchemy to putting together a winning roster. The process is trickier for Huntington, whose budget for player salaries always is among the lowest the majors.
This season the total payroll of the Pirates' 40-man roster was $75 million. That figure will grow, likely by a significant margin, next season. The Pirates will gain revenue from an expanded season ticket-holder base (a byproduct of this year's postseason run) and a large bump in its share of the national television money doled out by MLB.
Owner Bob Nutting already has signaled that the club's penny-pinching days are over. He allowed Huntington to go over budget late in the season by trading for Marlon Byrd, Justin Morneau and John Buck.
“We are aware of player and fan expectations,” Nutting said. “My responsibility is to the long-term health of this organization. It's much easier to stretch a financial budget — we have and will continue to do that for the right opportunities. What we're not willing to do is mortgage the future by trading really premier prospects.”
Assuming pitcher Wandy Rodriguez triggers his contract option, the Pirates will have $37.9 million committed to six players for 2014. Russell Martin, Andrew McCutchen, Jason Grilli, Jose Tabata and Francisco Liriano also are locked up.
“If this group stays together, it's going to be exciting to see what happens,” shortstop Clint Barmes said. “There's a ton of talent here.”
How many of the other players who were in the dugout for Game 5 of the National League Division Series will be back?
“We'd love for them all to return,” Huntington said. “That's not going to be financially possible. We're going to have to make some tough choices.”
The free-agent market opens the day after the World Series ends. Huntington will attempt to re-sign Byrd and A.J. Burnett, and he also might make a bid for Barmes.
Byrd is in line for a big hike over the $700,000 he made this season with the Pirates and New York Mets. But the size and length of his next contract will be tempered by his age (36) and previous suspension for use of performance-enhancing substances.
“I'd definitely like to come back,” Byrd said. “Great group, great front office, great staff, great fans. It's something special here that anyone would want to be part of.”
A deal for Barmes would be contingent on the understanding that he would be a platoon player with Jordy Mercer. Barmes would have to accept much less than the $10.5 million contract he signed two years ago.
The Pirates have not told Barmes whether they're interested in bringing him back. But the 11-year veteran said he's “excited” to talk to them, regardless.
“I'd love to stay,” Barmes said. “Obviously it's a possibility that my role would change. It's a decision I'm going to have to make with my agent and my family. But I want to be here.”
Burnett will turn 37 in January, but his statistics this season — 10-11 with a 3.30 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and a league-leading 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings — were solid. At season's end, Burnett declined to say whether he would consider retirement.
“We will do everything in our power to keep A.J. here,” Huntington said. “If he decides to continue to pitch, he absolutely has an open mind for Pittsburgh.”
Even if Burnett returns, the Pirates should consider signing another free-agent starting pitcher. There are questions about Rodriguez's health and whether Jeff Locke can bounce back from his second-half slump. In-house options for the fifth starter include Jeanmar Gomez, Stolmy Pimentel, Brandon Cumpton and Phil Irwin.
Jameson Taillon, a former first-round pick, probably will be in the Pirates' rotation at some point next season. But his debut is likely to be delayed until after mid-June so he wouldn't gain Super Two status and the extra year of arbitration eligibility.
The Pirates have nine arbitration-eligible players this offseason. The two most significant are Pedro Alvarez (first of three years) and Neil Walker (second of four).
Walker and Alvarez would get hefty raises via arbitration, so the Pirates will try to sign them both to multiyear deals.
Walker is open to the idea, even though previous negotiations did not work out. Alvarez's agent, Scott Boras, said he too is willing to listen to an offer.
“It's a good group of guys, and I can't wait to play alongside them for many years to come,” Alvarez said.
Of the other arbitration-eligible guys, the Pirates likely will retain Charlie Morton, Mark Melancon and Gaby Sanchez.
Vin Mazzaro could be nontendered then re-signed at a team-friendly rate. Garrett Jones, Felix Pie and Travis Snider probably will be nontendered and become free agents.
If Sanchez and Jones are nontendered, the Pirates would have to find an external replacement in a thin free-agent market. The top choices would be James Loney, Kendrys Morales and Morneau.