Following a wildly successful 2013 season, the Pirates entered the offseason with an obvious hole at 1B, and question marks at RF, SS, and in the starting rotation. I had very modest expectations for GM Neal Huntington this winter. If he could resign A.J. Burnett or a comparable starting pitcher, and upgrade the 1B position I would consider that a successful offseason. I don’t believe I am alone in that line of thinking. But here we are a little more than a week away from the start of the 2014 season and the same questions exist. Here is how each position in question was addressed:
Shortstop: Huntington chose to resign free agent Clint Barmes. Barmes will take on a supporting role this year while Jordy Mercer will now get the lion’s share of the playing time. It does not appear the Pirates gave any thought to signing another starting caliber free agent SS like Stephen Drew who is still on the market. The team is essentially sticking with the status quo. I can’t fault Huntington for sticking with the internal option at SS. Mercer performed well last season and has room to improve. As long as manager Clint Hurdle does not overuse/misuse Barmes this should turn out to be an acceptable solution.
Right Field: Huntington showed little interest in resigning free agent Marlon Byrd, despite how well he performed in his short tenure with the Bucs. Byrd got a generous offer from the Phillies and flew off to Philadelphia. The Pirates appear set to hand the RF job once again to a platoon of Jose Tabata and Travis Snider. Huntington did acquire minor league OF Jaff Decker in a deal with the Padres. He also signed Chris Dickerson to a minor league contract with an invite to spring training. Both players give the team some depth in case of injury to any of the Bucs’ outfielders. Given the injury history of Tabata, Snider, and Starling Marte there is a pretty good chance that Decker and/or Dickerson are going to get opportunities to contribute this season. With top prospect Gregory Polanco knocking on the door to take over the RF job soon, it didn’t make a lot of sense to commit to another player outside the organization. The internal options are more than adequate for the short term.
Starting Pitcher: In my opinion Huntinton erred in not offering A.J. Burnett a qualifying offer. He then swung and missed in an attempt to sign Josh Johnson. He also kicked the tires on Bronson Arroyo, but the interest seemed to be tepid at best. Ultimately he overpaid Edinson Volquez, one of the most erratic pitchers in baseball over the last several seasons. I don’t have an issue taking a flyer on a pitcher like Volquez. But paying him $5 million in early December and virtually guaranteeing him a spot in the rotation made no sense. There were still many good starting pitchers available at the time. Quite a few signed for far less than what the Bucs paid Volquez. The only positive move made was to lock up Charlie Morton to a three year extension.
First Base: This position pretty much defines the Pirates offseason. Huntington came up short in his effort to sign James Loney. Loney decided to stay with the Rays. Reportedly the Pirates offered him a similar deal. I understand he liked the Rays and wanted to return. But the Pirates should have the financial resources to convince a player they truly want to choose Pittsburgh over Tampa. Instead of bolstering the position, they went backwards. Garrett Jones was released and Justin Morneau signed as a free agent with the Rockies. Jones and Morneau are no great shakes, but considering how questionable the remaining suspects that play the position are it would have made sense to retain one of the veterans. Instead the Bucs acquired minor league 1B Chris McGuiness from the Rangers, and brought in Travis Ishikawa on a minor league deal with a spring training invite. McGuiness and Ishikawa are competing with Andrew Lambo for the left-handed hitting 1B platoon role. Yikes! That is a whole lot of AAAA type talent the Pirates are banking on to bolster the position. The other option that the team has hinted at is to give the the right-handed hitting Gaby Sanchez a chance to once again be an everyday 1B. Sanchez rakes against left-handed pitchers, but he has just a .700 OPS in his career against right-handed pitchers. No way around it, Huntington deserves an F for how he addressed the team’s 1B need.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it, the Bucs’ front office had a pretty terrible offseason. A contending team like the Pirates needs to do more than what they did. The Pirates spent just $7 million in free agency this winter. That was least of any team in baseball. On top of the inactivity, Huntington made a slew of confusing comments starting with this one made in November:
If he or others want a market-value deal, they’ll sign elsewhere
A few months later Huntington told Travis Sawchik of Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he had $17-$19 million in his budget to spend on free agents this winter. If there was that much money available in the budget why couldn’t Neal Huntington pay market-value for a decent starting pitcher or a 1B upgrade? If you are hungry for a pizza and you have $20 in your wallet (or man purse for you non-traditional types) do you not order a pizza simply because you couldn’t find a buy one get one free offer? A lot of fans want to rip owner Bob Nutting for the Pirates’ lack of spending. I too have complained in the past that Nutting should open the pocketbook more. But I can’t fault Bob for this offseason. The statement Huntington made indicates he has a sizable budget increase to work with. By his owe admission he had $19 million to spend on free agents. He only spent $7 million of it, quite poorly I might add. Bob Nutting gave the GM enough cash to fill the shopping cart half full with groceries. Huntington came back with a pack of gum.
There are a lot of excuses why Huntington couldn’t do more. One of the biggest excuses is the free agent market just wasn’t that great and the Pirates shouldn’t overpay for mediocre talent. A lot of fans and bloggers laughed at the Rockies for clearly overpaying Justin Morneau. Morneau looks to be about 1.0 WAR player at this point of his career. The Rockies are paying him $6.25 annually over the next two seasons. The Pirates spent $7 million on a pair of free agents that combined for 1.0 fWAR in 2013. How is that any better? The other excuse I heard this winter is that the Pirates made competitive offers to players such as Johnson and Loney that chose different teams because of either location or familiarity. My response to that is why should the front office get a pass for a crummy sales job? This is a contending team coming off a 94 win season. PNC park is the most pitcher friendly park in the league. A good salesmen should be able to close on that. The bottom line is that the excuses are worthless, and the front office laid an egg this winter. Whether that ultimately hurts the Pirates is yet to be seen. Games are won on the field in the summer, not in the office during the winter. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Front Office missed on nearly every opportunity to make this team stronger. That is why I’m giving them a D grade for the offseason. Frankly, I think that might be generous.