As Meetings approach, Bucs consider options
Corner bat a priority, but club may fill need internally; Burnett still a variable
PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates finished over .500 for the first time in two decades and made their first postseason appearance since the early '90s. With that hurdle cleared, the next question is obvious: How do they keep it going?
Since Neal Huntington took over as general manager, there has been a long-term plan in place, one that put an emphasis on the farm system helping to create sustained success. In many ways, that's worked, with some help from key free-agent signings and trades building the roster that took the Pirates to Game 5 of the National League Division Series in 2013.
But with Marlon Byrd gone to Philadelphia and Garrett Jones' tenure in Pittsburgh over, it does appear that the Pirates are in the need of some corner bat help in 2014. Looking for a first baseman and a right fielder, at least one to keep things going until prospect Gregory Polanco is deemed ready, should be among the key priorities for the Pirates as they head to Lake Buena Vista, Fla., for this year's Winter Meetings.
"Those are the two most discussed spots where we could upgrade," Huntington said. "Bench depth is another place is if there are upgrades out there, we'll take a look."
One of the reasons the Pirates may not want to look at a multiyear deal for a right fielder -- Byrd signed a two-year deal with the Phillies -- is the development of Polanco, who is having a strong winter ball season that could have him poised to contribute at some point in 2014. Huntington also was quick to point to those already in house, including Andrew Lambo, Gaby Sanchez, Jose Tabata, Travis Snider and the newly acquired Jaff Decker, who could get a chance to fill the slots at first or right should the market not bear any fruit.
"We have some internal options to look at," Huntington said. "People sometimes forget that two years ago, Gaby was serviceable against right-handed pitching. In 2012 and 2013, it was a struggle for him. But we went platoon-oriented last year because of what the projection of Garrett Jones was against righties and what Sanchez was against lefties.
"It's not like a year ago, when we had to go get Russ Martin, or two years ago, when we had to get a catcher and a shortstop. We have capable internal replacements. If there's some way to make the club better, we'll continue to explore those."
Those aren't the only questions the Pittsburgh brain trust will be pondering at the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort from Dec. 9-12. One important variable in the 2014 plans centers on veteran right-hander A.J. Burnett. Burnett has indicated in the past that he was either going to retire or re-sign with the Pirates, but Huntington had yet to receive word of Burnett's plans. If he were to test the free-agent market, he'd likely price himself out of Pittsburgh's limits, perhaps leaving the Pirates with a need to find a starter. Like with the outfield situation, it could end up being a placeholder for a top prospect, this time Jameson Taillon. Nick Kingham could be ready to contribute, giving the Pirates some depth to work with even if Burnett isn't back.
"We're still working through the process with A.J.," Huntington said. "We respect it is a significant decision for him and his family. The challenge of several markets in baseball is if a top-end player is looking for top-end market value, it's not going to be in several markets. It's not Pittsburgh-centric. There are only a limited amount of clubs that can pay that and still build a championship-caliber roster.
"People have written Jeff Locke off; we don't buy that. We feel he's going to be a very capable Major League starter next year. Wandy Rodriguez will be back. We have some depth there, with Taillon and Kingham on the horizon. The cupboard is not bare. But if we lose A..J, it will give us the opportunity to continue to explore the free-agent market."
When looking at bench depth, one place Pittsburgh might be shopping is at shortstop. The organization is committed to Jordy Mercer as the starter in 2014, but don't be surprised if the Pirates look to bring in someone to protect him or complement him. That someone could still be Clint Barmes, if he can't find a starting gig elsewhere.
The Pirates typically have not made a lot of noise at Winter Meetings past, outside of some selections in Thursday's Rule 5 Draft. But even if the Pirates come away from the Meetings empty-handed, conversations that take place there often can lead to deals later on. Pittsburgh wasn't active in Nashville a year ago, but at the end of the month, the Pirates shipped Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox in a deal that netted them Mark Melancon.