The difference in the vibe around the Pirates is palpable, and why not? They are no longer a franchise with a record 20 straight losing seasons. No, they are a team that came within one game of reaching the National League Championship Series, certain they are good, confident they will be even better.
That, though, is the question: Are they actually improved?
The initial returns from their offseason suggest no.
Marlon Byrd is gone after arriving in a trade last Aug. 27 and solving the Pirates’ right-field problem by producing an .843 OPS in the final 30 games. Right-hander A.J. Burnett is gone after averaging 197 innings and delivering a 3.41 ERA in his two years with the club.
The Pirates, ever thrifty, did not replace Byrd. They did not offer a contract to first baseman Garrett Jones, who signed a two-year, $7.5 million deal with the Marlins. And they signed the enigmatic Edinson Volquez for one year and $5 million, intending him to fill the spot vacated by Burnett.
To this point, the rest of their offseason has consisted mainly of re-signing shortstop Clint Barmes to a one-year, $2 million contract and acquiring backup catcher Chris Stewart and unproven first baseman Chris McGuiness in trades.
The Pirates aren’t necessarily finished – they still could trade for a first baseman such as the Mets’ Ike Davis, Rangers’ Mitch Moreland or Mariners’ Justin Smoak. The signing of Kendrys Morales, a compensation free agent, appears less likely. The Pirates aren’t opposed to parting with the 25th pick in the draft, but their payroll limitations might preclude them from investing heavily in a player who is a better fit in the American League, where he can also serve as a DH.
Even if the Pirates fail to make a move, they can point to any number of reasons why they could improve from within. Righty Gerrit Cole will be in the rotation from the start of the season. Righty Jameson Taillon, their next hot pitching prospect, could be this year’s June headliner. And Gregory Polanco, MVP of the Dominican winter league, might arrive with Taillon to join Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte in what could become perhaps the game’s most electrifying outfield.
Some combination of Gaby Sanchez and McGuiness, Andrew Lambo or a player to be named could give the Pirates reasonable production at first. And while the rotation appears rather volatile, the Pirates believe their depth will help overcome any issues that might arise. Ditto for the bullpen, which might not again rank third in the majors in ERA, but should be plenty good enough.
The problem, even if the Pirates hit on most of their best-case scenarios, is that they are chasing the Cardinals, a team with accomplished stars and a seemingly never-ending supply of burgeoning young talent.
Which brings us back to the original question.
Did the Pirates need to do more?
For starters, they should have made a $14.1 million qualifying offer to Burnett, at least ensuring that they would receive a compensation pick if he signed with another club.
The Pirates feared, not unreasonably, that Burnett might accept the offer and absorb too large a chunk of their payroll, which figures to be in the range of $75 million to $80 million. But they later offered him nearly the same amount — $12 million, according to published reports. Too little, too late: Burnett took $16 million from the Phillies to pitch closer to his home in Monkton, Md.
On other fronts, it’s not as if the Pirates didn’t try — they were one of five teams to outbid the Padres for right-hander Josh Johnson, according to a source with knowledge of the pitcher’s offers. Johnson accepted a one-year, $8 million deal with the Padres because he wanted to play in San Diego or San Francisco, close to his home in Las Vegas, and also liked the Pads’ defense and home park, the source said.
The Pirates also made a run at free-agent first baseman James Loney but wanted him on a two-year deal. Loney signed a three-year, $21 million contract to remain with the Rays, and according to a source probably would have made the same decision even if the Pirates had offered him three years at comparable money; the deal would have been worth more in Florida, a state that does not charge income tax.
Again, the work of general manager Neal Huntington is not complete and will not be complete even if he fails to make another move by Opening Day. Huntington, after striking out last July at the non-waiver deadline, made late August trades for Byrd, catcher John Buck and first baseman Justin Morneau, helping lift the Pirates to their first postseason berth since 1992.
That said, low-revenue teams operate with little margin for error, and sometimes become overly cautious as a result. Judging from the success of the Rays and Athletics, the opposite approach is more effective; those teams are among the game’s most imaginative, constantly reinventing their rosters.
Maybe the Pirates are better off showing restraint and preserving their resources while sitting on the game’s top-ranked farm system, according to Baseball America. In the meantime, it’s fair to ask if the major league team will suffer.
Time will tell if the Pirates chose the right course, but let’s not forget the big picture. The discussion about this team is now taking place at a higher level. The debate over whether the Pirates did enough to sustain their momentum is a welcome debate indeed.