Pirates offseason preview: First base, pitching among priorities
(We will preview one team’s offseason each day leading up to the start of free agency. Now up: the Pittsburgh Pirates.)
Well, 98 wins and the second-best record in baseball don’t get you much these days – except a ticket to a one-and-done Wild Card Game against the team with the third-best record in baseball whose ace has been untouchable for months.
That’s the tough reality for the Pirates and their fans after a 4-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs in the NL Wild Card Game. For the second consecutive season, Pittsburgh ran into the hottest pitcher on the planet in a do-or-die format. And both times, the Pirates failed to score a run at home and were sent to a premature offseason.
A fourth consecutive playoff appearance is possible next season because a young and talented core led by Andrew McCutchen will return, but the Pirates have some work to do. Three things they must address this offseason:
1. Switch divisions. Well, it’s worth a shot, right? Assuming this plea get dismissed by Commissioner Rob Manfred and assuming MLB doesn’t change its postseason seeding system, let’s try this again …
1. Figure out first base. Pedro Alvarez started 124 games at the position this season and remains under team control for one more season. However, he is eligible for arbitration again this offseason after winning his case against the team last season. While the Pirates love his power and run production (27 homers, 77 RBI in 2015), they certainly aren’t enamored with his defense. That was evident late in the season when Mike Morse and Aramis Ramirez started ahead of him at times, and in the NL Wild Card Game when Sean Rodriguez, who started 12 games at first base all season, got the start (before Rodriguez quickly was replaced in the lineup, ejected from the game and decided to assault a Gatorade cooler).
Alvarez, the second overall pick in the 2008 draft, began his career at third base but made the move to first base this season. However, he still committed 23 errors at first. As a team, Pittsburgh committed 122 errors this season (second-most in the majors) and must tighten its defense. That, coupled with Alvarez’s low batting average and strikeout tendencies, could mean the end of his tenure in Pittsburgh. He was mentioned in trade rumors this summer, and that figures to be the case again this offseason. With Ramirez retiring and Rodriguez a free agent, though, there aren’t many in-house options to replace Alvarez at first base other than Morse.
2. Replace A.J. Burnett (and maybe more). The veteran leader of the Pirates’ rotation is calling it a career after 17 seasons in the majors. Although he missed time late in the season with an elbow injury, Burnett posted a 3.18 ERA and 143 strikeouts in 26 starts (164 innings) this season. So his departure leaves a void.
And it isn’t just Burnett who could leave. Left-hander J.A. Happ, acquired in a completely overlooked deal before the non-waiver trade deadline, is a free agent. His revival (7-2, 1.85 ERA, 9.8 K/9 ratio) with Pittsburgh could price him out of a deal to return.
Starters Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke remain under contract through at least next season. But they will need some help. The Pirates have had remarkable success in recent seasons with reclamation-project pitchers, so they don’t need to break the bank by pursuing a top-tier starter in free agency.
3. Replenish the bullpen. Closer Marl Melancon will be back after his outstanding 51-save season, but a couple of his setup men are about to hit the free-agent market. Right-hander Joakim Soria, acquired from the Detroit Tigers in July, is one of them. So is left-hander Antonio Bastardo. Pittsburgh led the majors in with a 2.64 bullpen ERA this season, and the relief corps ideally would be a strength again going forward. But there’s work to be done.