Offseason Outlook: Pittsburgh Pirates

The NL Wild Card game did not go as planned for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Now with the second guessing of the pitching set up for the final week of the season behind them, the Pirates have to make plenty of decisions across their roster. It starts with Russell Martin and starting pitching. The Pirates have turned the corner from their long losing streak, but fans are watching roster moves closesly and are rightfully concerned about what 2015 could hold.

2014 Recap

The Pirates finished the 2014 MLB season at 88-74 after a 10-16 start to the season. The pitchers of record for the first three Pirates games were Bryan Morris, Stolmy Pimentel and Wandy Rodriguez. Two of those three did not finish the year with the team. which emphasizes how much Pittsburgh changed in 162 games.

Andrew McCutchen put together another phenomenal season. Josh Harrison went from super utility player to an everyday starter at third base and a member of the All-Star team. Martin had a career year. Starling Marte was one of the best players in the entire league in the second half of the season. Travis Snider earned playing time in right field. The rest of the supporting cast did well enough, but the platoon at first base never really made an impact.

The pitching staff recovered after a tough start. Mark Melancon thrived in the closer role. Tony Watson was virtually untouchable for a long stretch of the season. Gerrit Cole struggled with injury but still showed glimpses of dominance. The Edinson Volquez reclamation project worked and Francisco Liriano was great in the last three months of the season.

Under Contract

The Pirates only have four players under contract for 2015. They have $19 million committed to McCutchen, Marte and Charlie Morton. They also owe Jose Tabata $4 million even though he does not figure into future plans.

The roster for 2015 will also include a few pre-arbitration players that will make close to $500,000. Cole is in line for a raise, but that Pirates will try to get the most out of the league minimum for their ace. Jordy Mercer and Gregory Polanco will also be around that figure next year.

Costless Agents

The big one is Martin. The crowdsource costless agent contracts at Fangraphs have Martin getting a four-year deal worth $56 million. That is far too steep for the Pirates, who are hesitant to dedicate that much money to one player. Martin's age is a big factor in the negotiations as the catcher will be 32 at the start of the next season. Although, no player has ever accepted a qualifying offer, the Pirates did extend one to Martin on Monday.

Liriano and Volquez are also costless agents and could be a package deal for their next team. Liriano could fetch around $12 million a year on the open market, but did receive a qualifying offer from Pittsburgh. Volquez, who had a Comeback Player of the Year-caliber season, is said to be looking for a two-year deal worth around $16 million.

In regard to Martin and Liriano, Pirates GM Neil Huntington says that the team will continue to pursue the players even if the qualifying offers are declined. In a conference Monday Huntington said, "Our plan is to keep door open as long as we can."

Clint Barmes is also a costless agent, but will not return with the Pirates acquiring Justin Sellers.

Arbitration

After designating John Axford and Jeanmar Gomez the Pirates still have 11 arbitration-eligible players. The club-owned players are getting expensive and there will be a significant salary increase that could have the Pirates threatening the $82.1 million team payroll in 2014, a new club record. At least seven of the players are all but guaranteed arbitration.

Harrison, Watson, Melancon, Jared Hughes, Vance Worley, Neil Walker, and Chris Stewart should all get deals. There is still a chance that Walker could get a long-term deal, but his back issues are a concern for the Pirates. Stewart was good enough with the bat and did well with his framing. Melancon could get a $5 million dollar raise. Most of the others in this list are looking at $1.5-$2 million dollar raises. Hughes will get the smallest raise after making league minimum in 2014.

Snider and Pedro Alvarez should also win through arbitration. Snider had numerous timely hits when spelling other outfielders and took a hold of the right field job. He will be an insurance option. Meanwhile, Alvarez could be the starting first baseman in 2015, if he isn't traded. Matt Swartz of Fangraphs has both of them getting a raise of about $800,000.

Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez are the outliers. Davis could be let go if the belief in Alvarez is strong with Snider as the first left handed pinch hit option. Sanchez had a bad season at the plate, but was reliable defensively. It would not be a surprise if both players were back in the fold on opening day, but fans would not protest if they were let go. It is not logical to keep them both with the team when there are other needs that the roster spots could help meet.

Team Needs

Regardless of how talks go with the impending costless agents, the Pirates are still in need of pitching help. Watson and Melancon were the only safe bets in the bullpen last year. John Holdzkom was quite the story, but it is hard to say how long that will last. They should be looking at back of the 'pen help.

They also need to fill out the rotation. Morton and Jameson Taillon are not expected to be recovered in time for the start of the season. Jeff Locke, Worley and Pimentel are options, but none are reliable. Nick Kingham looked ready for a promotion at the end of the 2014 season and could get a chance to be in the rotation next year.

Catcher is obviously a place of need, unless the Pirates can swoon Martin into returning. Let's dive more into what options the Pirates have this offseason.

What Will the Pirates Do?

The two qualifying offers made by the Pirates on Monday was the first time they have used this mechanism. There has never been a qualifying offer accepted and 17 of 22 players have joined another team. Martin and Liriano are unlikely to accept the offers. For Martin the pivotal part is the number of years he wants. It is money for Liriano.

Martin signed a two-year deal with the Pirates in 2012 to position himself for costless agency this season. He is now coveted as one of the top 10 costless agents available. The Pirates could go to the high $20-million range for two years, but Martin is looking for the contract he can retire on. It looks unlikely that Martin will wear black and gold next season. Right now the Chicago Cubs are the front runners.

This means Stewart and the newly-engaged Tony Sanchez would be the catchers on opening day. Elias Diaz has skyrocketed through the farm system and will be a spring training invitee. Pittsburgh will look at a costless agent option and they will have to go defense first. There is really no comparison to Martin out there, but Travis Sawchik of Trib Total Media expects David Ross to be the target.

If Liriano comes back he could help sway Martin. The $15.3 million over one year is more than Liriano would get on the open market money wise, but there is no doubt that he could get a multi-year deal. It is a tough decision, but Huntington's thoughts on pursuing Liriano if he turns down the qualifying offer were less than convincing. “We feel good about a one-year, $15.3 million deal. If he hits the costless-agent market, we'll stay engaged and do what we can to bring him back,” stated Huntington in a very company line kind of way.

The Pirates will be looking for their next reclamation project regardless of Liriano's decision. Justin Masterson, Gavin Floyd and Kyle Kendrick all fall into this category. Brett Anderson is another potential target if he can show he has recovered from a back injury. Ultimately the Pirates want hard throwers that can get ground balls.

Brandon McCarthy is still a good value for the Pirates but doesn't necessarily fit the bill as a candidate for improvement under Ray Searage. However, he and Liriano are sure to get similar contracts. McCarthy would be welcome in the clubhouse and MLB Trade Rumors projected the Pirates as his landing spot.

The Pirates will also look for cheap bullpen help and their targets are anyone's guess. Plenty of right handers should be available and Sawchik thinks that Sergio Romo is worth a look. However, even Romo's price could be too steep. Casey Janssen and Pat Neshek would be good additions.

40-Man Roster Negotiation?

There is a chance that the Pirates find a lot of cheap options and try to make it work, so they could look at negotiating with some players already on the 40-man roster. Cole and Polanco would be the first two on the list to be offer new contracts. Polanco was offered a contract last year that he declined, but the Pirates cannot be deterred.

Cole's negotiations will be interesting as he is a Scott Boras client. He had two years registering over a 1.0 wins above replacement, which could command anywhere from five to eight million per year at this stage. Oddly enough, offering Cole a seven- or eight-year contract at $7 million a year would help the Pirates front office get back into the good graces of Pirates fans if they fail to sign Martin.

Projected 2015 Opening Day Starting Lineup

1. Harrison - 3B

2. Polanco - RF

3. McCutchen - CF

4. Walker - 2B

5. Marte - LF

6. Alvarez - 1B

7. Mercer - SS

8. Stewart - C

9. Cole - P

Odds and Ends

  1. The Pirates are searching for a new bench coach.
  2. Josh Bell, once a highly-touted outfield prospect, continues training at first base in the Arizona Fall League (AFL).
  3. Tyler Glasnow has been one of the best pitchers in the AFL.
  4. The Pirates will listen to trades, but do not have many pieces they would part with barring a blockbuster. Justin Wilson and Alen Hanson are a couple players that could be available.

There is sure to be plenty of moving parts with the Pirates this offseason. Martin is the key for many, but his likely departure means new leadership in the clubhouse and patching together the bottom half of the lineup. The Pirates window for success is still open, but this offseason is shaking up to be much more active for the organization than the past two years. Pittsburgh will be one of the most interesting teams to follow from now until opening day.

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