The annual winter meetings have passed. A lot of GMs have been aggressive in spending or prioritizing their team's urgent needs. As usual, the Pirates were not big spenders nor would I consider them aggressive. This fits into their typical patient and cost-effective operations. So, what is there to write about? The Pirates made some recent moves and seem to be staging something. Let's predict what.
This is all about freeing up salary.
Neil Walker - Pirates fans had to say goodbye to a fan favorite. This ripped off the band-aid from past Pirate teams where we allowed our talent to move on, in efforts to rebuild. This one stings, since the talented Walker grew up in Pittsburgh and was, by all accounts, a model citizen on and off the field. This was salary focused and Walker, reasonably, shouldn't be expected to take a pay cut at the prime of his career to stay with the team. And, the team recognized it already has capable folks of filling the role right now (see: Josh Harrison). Long term, Alen Hanson seems to project into the teams starting role.
Charlie Morton - Under appreciated, but oft injured. When he was healthy, Morton was a ground ball wizard. He never overwhelmed with his stuff, but he consistently delivered 6-7 innings without making huge gaffes. This consistency was often overlooked, because he wasn't blowing teams away. But, this consistency makes him ideal for a back of the rotation starter.
Why would the Pirates trade him to the Phils? They could get a bounce back candidate on a short term deal for much cheaper and one that would probably stay on the field longer. This gives them time to evaluate Jamison Taillon after Tommy John surgery and get Tyler Glasnow into the majors this year.
Pedro Alvarez - The Pirates success has been around solid pitching (starting and relief) and the complementary defense. They lack power, but they do get on base more. Flat out, Pedro is the polar opposite of what the Pirates need. He has power, but has a high strikeout rate and his defense in multiple positions has been atrocious. He was predicted to command a hefty salary for a team that already has Michael Morse and will likely resign the utility man Sean Rodriguez. This doesn't strike fear into opposing teams, but it is likely better than the salary dump.
Retirements - The Pirates lost stalwart veterans AJ Burnett and Aramis Ramirez to retirement. Burnett had an unexpectedly productive year last year (no doubt motivated by his last hurrah and a fan base that adores him). Ramirez seemed to provide veteran leadership down the stretch. I believe someone like Chris Stewart can become a more established veteran voice in the locker room. The void here is more about grit, experience, and above average production around depth. Kang will be more present at third base and Jon Niese, acquired by the Walker trade, should suffice. Niese should not be measured from past history, but based on what the Pirates coaching can mold him into.
The team still has glaring needs at first base, starting pitching, and relief pitchers.
There is a principal reason why salary has been freed up (sitting now around 25 million or so freed after recent transactions). Neil Huntingdon has publicly said this will help the Pirates establish depth. In short, and as predicted, they will not go after the big fish in the sea. This should immediately eliminate Scott Kazmir and Mike Leake, of which are still popular targets among free agents. But, there is enough salary here for the Pirates to make impact.
Pirates coaching has demonstrated the ability to rehabilitate the careers of talented pitchers down on their luck. In fact, rumors tie the Pirates to comeback pitchers Justin Masterson and Mat Latos. Cliff Lee would be an incredible addition at the right price, as he seems to have been written off like Burnett was in Philadelphia. I can't see them getting into a bidding war with Kazmir or Leake, unless their market dies down and the Pirates can establish relatively short term deals that will not block their promising minor league depth. Jeff Locke is no guarantee to hold down a roster spot, but certainly could serve in a long relief role, similar to that of Joe Blanton last year. In short, there will be starting pitching added and the roster will improve, but I highly doubt Pirates fans will get the big names they are drooling over.
Pirates fans want a big splash and first base is the best opportunity for doing so. Pirates coaches have not, however, demonstrated the ability to groom their current roster into salvageable first basemen. They lost two potential fourth slot hitters in Walker and Alvarez and they have had very little consistency in the position (see: Morneau, Ike Davis, Alvarez, Adam LaRoche, Morse, Rodriguez, Gaby Sanchez, Garrett Jones, etc). They need power, veteran leadership, and they yearn for someone to continue to steer their youth. Don't expect them to go after the likes of Chris Davis who, in my mind, is very similar to Pedro Alvarez. They have already made ineffective, nominal trades to bring in Morneau and Ike Davis. This should rule out the need to make another average investment in free agents like Adam Lind or Steve Pearce, who wouldn't be substantially better than a Morse/Rodriguez platoon.
Expect the Pirates to make a trade for their first basement. Impactful moves made by buyers at the trade deadline are often expensive. The Pirates must contend with desperate teams trying to patch injuries and trades can have the potential to disrupt the cadence established by the team throughout the year. My hope is that the Pirates see the benefit of making moves early on. If I were in their shoes, my trade would be for Freddie Freeman of the Braves. Why? He has power, he plays defense, and he is adored by Atlanta fans. Yes, this is a big move, and is likely improbable. But, if they do anything noteworthy, this certainly fits the bill. This is the perfect move the Pirates need to establish consistency, invest back in the franchise, and win back the fans after the recent moves. The Braves are in all-out firesale mode. He is locked up long term so the Pirates shouldn't hesitate to throw in some of the depth in the farm system. Throw in a tantalizing prospect like Josh Bell, and it might garner some attention from the Braves.
Lastly, I expect some contract extensions. Huntingdon would be wise to lock up Francisco Cervelli (a growing fan favorite) and make Andrew McCutchen a Pirate for life. It would be expensive, but well worth it. Cervelli provided the spark left by Russell Martin's free agency departure. He was quite a surprise and was overlooked as a member of the Yankees. McCutchen is the face of the franchise and has outplayed his current contract after consecutive MVP seasons. The Pirates should offer him a raise on the remaining years of his deal to provide the incentive and extend his contract for as many years as possible.