Pirates have mostly been sitting on their hands this off-season
ST. LOUIS — During all those years of losing, perhaps the Pirates forgot the saying that staying on top is more difficult than getting to the top.
Considering how little they’ve done so far this off-season, it looks like that, anyway.
The Pirates have lost at least three key contributors from the roster that helped them end a 20-year skid of losing seasons and reach the playoffs for the first time since 1992. And they haven’t done much to replace them.
Maybe their ample supply of young talent can do enough to keep the Pirates from taking a step back. Maybe all those fans who rocked out at PNC Park can chip in to pay for an upgrade at first base or right field. Maybe GM Neal Huntington can find another gem in the bargain bin as he did last year when he signed Francisco Liriano.
Whatever, the Pirates need to do something to deepen their roster to give themselves their best chance of building on their 2013 breakout.
Though right fielder Marlon Byrd and first baseman Justin Morneau didn’t arrive in Pittsburgh until late August, both provided a much-needed boost during their short stays. The Pirates, however, chose not to pay — or, overpay — for their return. Byrd, 36, landed with the Phillies for two years at $16 million. Morneau, 32, will take over first for Todd Helton in Colorado, on reasonable terms of two years and $12.5 million.
Neither of the short-timers will be missed as much as right-hander A.J. Burnett, who remains undecided about returning for a third season with the Pirates. Burnett, 37, reportedly is choosing between retirement, signing with the Pirates or getting a job close to his Maryland home with the Orioles.
Garrett Jones, reduced to pinch-hitting by the end of last season, found a job with the Marlins when he was non-tendered after five seasons with the Pirates.
The biggest signing to this point has been … drum roll, please … right-hander Edinson Volquez for one year at $5 million. The one-time Reds starter has returned to the NL Central, but don’t expect him to be this year’s Liriano. Volquez went 9-12 with a 5.71 ERA last season for the Padres and Dodgers, and was considered healthy.
Their best signing to this point has been getting shortstop Clint Barmes to return on a one-year deal for $2 million (a $3.5 million cut) as a backup. Barmes hit .211 and lost his job to Jordy Mercer, but the Pirates still will benefit from his veteran presence.
Pittsburgh has been busy signing retread veterans to minor league deals. Among them: first baseman Travis Ishikawa and relievers Cody Eppley, Josh Kinney, Seth McClung and Daniel Schlereth.
Lefty-hitting first baseman Chris McGuiness, acquired from the Rangers after he was designated for assignment, is a candidate to platoon with Gaby Sanchez.
Unless they believe a Sanchez-McGuiness tandem will be enough, which is difficult to believe, finding a first baseman remains a priority. The problem is not much is left on the free-agent market, and the Pirates appear as stingy with their young talent as do the Cardinals.
The Pirates also could use an outfielder to replace Byrd in the middle of the lineup but are prepared to turn to 25-year-old Andrew Lambo or give Jose Tabata another chance of playing regularly.
Convincing Burnett to come back on their terms could salvage the off-season. Though the Cardinals had their way with the 37-year-old right-hander numerous times, he provided the Pirates with a veteran innings-eater at the top of their rotation.
Manager Clint Hurdle on renewed expectations of Pirates fans: "I do think they have a belief now in place that they haven’t been able to hold on to. It’s not just hope anymore. They saw tangible evidence of a team that could show up, play, compete and they were proud of. We need to give them more of that."
With one of the game’s strongest bullpens and a core led by MVP Andrew McCutchen, hard-throwing right-hander Gerrit Cole and slugger Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates possess the talent to build on last year. And, no doubt, budget constraints add to Pittsburgh’s challenge of upgrading its roster.
Still, winning becomes much tougher when you’re expected to win. Unless the Pirates do more than they’ve done to this point, they’re setting themselves up to learn that lesson the hard way.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.