Even if A.J. Burnett
returns to Pittsburgh, the Pirates
have a lot of uncertainties in their starting rotation. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
With less than two weeks remaining until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, 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 2013. To see the report cards already published, click here.
2013 results: 94-68 (.580), 2nd place NL Central, lost Division Series (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: 1B Justin Morneau, RF Marlon Byrd, 1B/OF Garrett Jones, C John Buck, C Michael McKenry, RHP A.J. Burnett* (* = free agent, still unsigned)
Key arrivals: RHP Edinson Volquez, C Chris Stewart
Well, this has been disappointing. Coming off a franchise-altering season which brought Pittsburgh its first winning record and playoff berth since 1992, the Pirates have reverted to being non-factors this offseason, failing to upgrade their roster in any obvious way. In fact, several key pieces have already departed, and more may be yet to come. Rightfiedler Marlon Byrd and first baseman Justin Morneau, two key late-season additions, have already left via free agency, and A.J. Burnett, who led the team in innings pitched last season, could soon do the same.
The biggest new name is Edinson Volquez, who was signed to a one-year deal worth $5 million. Volquez has put up a 5.09 ERA (71 ERA+) while walking 4.8 men per nine innings over the last three years with the Reds, Padres and Dodgers. The Pirates are clearly hoping that pitching coach Ray Searage can have the same success with Volquez that he had last year with Francisco Liriano, who went from posting a 5.23 ERA (79 ERA+) and walking five men per nine innings in the two years before joining the Pirates to walking just 3.5 per nine and posting a 3.02 ERA (117 ERA+) with Pittsburgh last year. That kind of attempt to catch lightning in a bottle might have been compelling as an afterthought to an otherwise successful offseason, but as the team's largest expenditure this offseason, it's disconcerting.
The only other free agent the Pirates have signed to a major league contract this offseason is Clint Barmes, whom they re-upped for $2 million to provide a slick-fielding backup to sophomore Jordy Mercer, reuniting the shortstop duo that hit a combined .250/.295/.375 last year.
Pittsburgh's offseason has admittedly been complicated by Burnett, who initially said he would either retire or re-sign with the Bucs only to have the news come out last week that he was not only going to play in 2014 but was going to listen to offers from other teams. Burnett is no ace, but he has been the anchor of the Pirates' rotation over the last two years, averaging 197 innings pitched while striking out nearly a man per inning and posting a 107 ERA+ in both seasons.
As currently comprised, the Pittsburgh rotation, while talented, contains few sure things, from sophomore Gerrit Cole coming off a 52-inning increase and heading into his first full major league season; to Charlie Morton hoping to make 30 starts for the first time in his career at age 30 and two years removed from Tommy John surgery; to Liriano and Volquez; to Wandy Rodriguez attempting to come back from a forearm strain that ended his 2013 season in early June; to Jeff Locke coming off a brutal second half in which he went 1-4 with a 7.25 ERA in his final 10 starts.
However, Burnett's indecision is no excuse for the Pirates' inaction. Their 2013 season was supposed to be the start of a new era of winning baseball in Pittsburgh, not just a one-year fling with relevance.
Unfinished business: First base, rightfield
The Pirates knew they needed upgrades at these positions. That's why they went out and got Byrd and Morneau in August. Yet, here we are in February and the only first-basemen on the team's 40-man roster are Gaby Sanchez and Chris McGuiness. McGuiness, who was acquired from the Rangers this offseason in a minor trade for righty reliever Miles Mikolas and will be 26 in April, made his Triple A debut in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League last year and hit .246/.369/.423.
As for rightfield, the Bucs have reverted back to Jose Tabata and Travis Snider, having added only Jaff Decker, a former Padres prospect acquired with Mikolas for minor league outfielder Alex Dickerson in November, and veteran quadruple-A journeyman Chris Dickerson, the latter on a minor league contract. Decker won't be 24 until later this month and has a career .402 on-base percentage across 2,282 plate appearances in the minors, and Dickerson, a .264/.341/.423 hitter in 607 major league plate appearances against righthanded pitching who offers speed and defense, has long been underappreciated. Neither, however, profiles as a regular rightfielder on a playoff team from the National League's strongest division.
Kendrys Morales and Nelson Cruz are still available. Both are poor fielders who will cost the Pirates a draft pick, but Pittsburgh will be hard pressed to find sufficient upgrades elsewhere at this late date.
Preliminary grade: F
Here's what I wrote about the Pirates in November's Hot Stove Preview:
As they proved with the additions of Byrd, Morneau and Russell Martin, and the March 2012 extension for Andrew McCutchen, the organization is willing to expand payroll to get and remain in contention. Its fans have then rewarded those decisions with increased attendance, which has thus increased revenues. It’s a very positive cycle, but it’s now the organization’s turn to keep that wheel spinning by adding the bats necessary to keep Pittsburgh in contention in 2014.
The Pirates have very clearly failed to hold up their end of the bargain this winter.