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Winter report card: Pittsburgh Pirates

Russell Martin Russell Martin could be one of the most underrated pickups of the offseason. (Reuters)

With less than a month before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.

Pittsburgh Pirates

2012 Results: 79-83, 4th place in NL Central (Hot Stove Preview)

Key departures: C Rod Barajas, RHP Kevin Correia, RHP Joel Hanrahan, 2B Brock Holt, RHP Evan Meek, UT Yamaico Navarro, RHP Chad Qualls, RHP Chris Resop, LHP Hisanori Takahashi

Key arrivals: IF Ivan De Jesus Jr., RHP Jeanmar Gomez, LHP Francisco Liriano, C Russell Martin, RHP Vin Mazzaro, RHP Mark Melancon, LHP Andy Oliver, 1B/OF Jerry Sands

The Pirates wound up with their 20th consecutive sub-.500 record, but they did give winning — and even contending — a try in 2012. They went 49-32 from May through July, elbowing their way into the division and wild-card races before a 20-39 finish consigned them to another losing season. General manager Neal Huntington has been fairly active this winter in attempting to upgrade their roster via mid-market free agents and trades, but while they've got several parts in place to make another bid for respectability — most notably MVP-caliber centerfielder Andrew McCutchen —  some weaknesses still glare, making contention for a playoff spot a longer shot.

By far Pittsburgh's biggest move this offseason has been the surprise acquisition of Martin, whom they signed to a two-year, $17 million deal while Yankees general manager Brian Cashman fiddled. The 29-year-old backstop hit just .211/.311/403 with New York in 2012, but his walk rate and power offset his low batting average, and his real value is in his pitch-framing ability, which was 19 runs above average last year, worth nearly two additional wins beyond what's included in the traditional value metrics. When one considers how bad Barajas was at the plate (.206/.283/.343) and behind it (throwing out six percent of would-be base thieves and well below average in pitch framing), the switch to Martin may easily represent a four-win improvement even assuming backup Mike McKenry (.233/.320/.442 with 12 homers in 2012) sees significant playing time as well.

The rest of the Pirates' additions won't have nearly that kind of impact. Liriano, who agreed a two-year, $12.75 million deal, reached the 150 inning plateau for just the second time in his career last year, but posted an ERA above 5.00 (5.34 in 156 2/3 innings split between the Twins and White Sox) for the third year out of four. While his 9.6 strikeouts per nine marked his highest rate since his stellar 2006 rookie season, his 5.0 walks per nine blunted his success at missing bats. Furthermore, the mercurial 29-year-old apparently broke the humerus of his right (non-pitching) arm in a bathroom fall, necessitated a revision of his contract, and at this writing he still needs to pass a physical for the deal to be finalized.

Assuming that all goes well, Liriano will replace the departed Correia, slotting into the rotation behind A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald, leaving the fifth spot in play between Jeff Karstens, Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson and Oliver, a 25-year-old lefty who spent most of the past two seasons in Triple-A, where he has posted counterproductively high strikeout and walk rates (8.5 per nine and 6.7 per nine, respectively). Gomez, who turns 25 on Feb. 10, is a lesser back-rotation option who has compiled a 5.18 ERA while striking out just 4.9 per nine in 206 2/3 innings with the Indians over the past three years. Later in the year, blue-chip prospects Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon might make their debuts, but one suspects both will be on short leashes due to age-related workload concerns.

The December trade of Hanrahan and Holt to the Red Sox for four players — Melancon, DeJesus, Sands and prospect Stolmy Pimental — has opened up the closer's job. The 27-year-old Melancon saved 20 games for the Astros in 2011 but was lit for a 6.20 ERA in 45 innings with the Red Sox last year; after allowing 10 runs in his first four appearances totaling two innings, he spent nearly two months in Triple-A, then returned and posted a 4.19 ERA — but just a 2.85 FIP — the rest of the way. He's probably the number two candidate to close behind Jason Grilli, a 36-year-old late bloomer who re-signed with the team via a two-year, $6.75 million deal after whiffing an eye-opening 13.8 per nine in 52 2/3 innings as a setup man last year. Given the midseason trade of Brad Lincoln, the late-season release of Juan Cruz and the offseason departures of Meek, Resop and Qualls, the Bucs still have work to do in rebuilding a bullpen that ranked fourth in the league in preventing inherited runners from scoring (26 percent) and seventh in both ERA (3.36) and strikeout rate (8.4 per nine).

Beyond Melancon, the rest of the take from Boston isn't much to write home about. The 26-year-old De Jesus and the 25-year-old Sands are both former Dodgers farmhands who were throw-ins in the late August blockbuster with Boston. The former is the son of a good-field/no-hit shortstop by the same name who spent parts of 15 seasons in the majors; the younger DeJesus no longer has the defensive chops to be a regular at short, and appears to have lost the plate discipline he showed before a broken leg derailed him back in 2009. Sands is a 25-year-old who has hit 90 homers in Double-A and Triple-A over the past three seasons — the last two mostly at hitter-friendly Albuquerque — but just .244/.325/.376 in 251 PA at the big league level. He could fit on the roster as an alternative to Gaby Sanchez and/or Travis Snider if either fails to recover their earlier promise, but he may be organizational fodder himself. Pimental is a 22-year-old who spent the past season and a half in Double-A; according to Baseball Prospectus, he "has the body and velocity of a power pitcher, along with a strong changeup, but mechanical inconsistencies leave him with a bleak outlook as a starter."

Unfinished business: Short Stopgap. The Pirates received on-base percentages of .300 or lower at four positions, and while they've attempted to address those shortcomings at catcher, first base and leftfield since the middle of last season, they've done nothing at shortstop, where Clint Barmes is the incumbent, making $5.5 million in the second year of a two-year deal. The 33-year-old Barmes hit an abysmal .227/.271/.318 in 493 PA last year; even with good defense (nine to 13 runs above average according to the various metrics) he wasn't very valuable (0.1 WARP, or 1.2 bWAR).

Given that the pitching staff's strikeout rate ranked just 12th in the league and that neither second baseman Neil Walker nor third baseman Pedro Alvarez are very good defensively, one can understand the desire for a defense-first shortstop. Even so, Huntington ought to have been able to find one who is less of a black hole offensively. For example, free agent Alex Gonzalez, who missed most of last year with a torn ACL, is a plus defender whose power offsets his other offensive shortcomings (career .247/.292/.399); he would make more sense as a short-term stopgap, though other alternatives with major league experience who are still available — including former Pirate Ronny Cedeno — aren't all that enticing, and even if the Bucs unearth a trade partner, finding a taker for Barmes' salary is hardly trivial .

Preliminary grade: C. The Pirates' winter hasn't been a smashing success, though several of their acquisitions offer hopes of rebounding to previous form. They probably won't contend for a playoff spot, but breaking the .500 barrier isn't impossible given their roster, and the strength of their farm system suggests even brighter days ahead.

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