Inbox: What do Pirates need to upgrade?

Inbox: What do Pirates need to upgrade?

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates may still need a manager, but that's not going to stop us from digging into offseason issues in the meantime. The free-agent pool officially opened on Sunday, and the Pirates' activity in that market is of interest to all. We'll start there today.

Also a reminder that the goal is to make the Inbox a weekly fixture up until Spring Training, so please submit your questions in the appropriate place below.

Besides the obvious need for pitching, what position do you think the Pirates need to upgrade this offseason? I really think they are in need of a shortstop. Is there any chance the Pirates feel the same way?
-- Chuck C., Polish Hill, Pa.

Given the Pirates' deficiencies on offense, defense and pitching last season, there are plenty of areas in need of upgrading. As you stated, though, pitching is undoubtedly No. 1.

Pittsburgh's starters lost 84 games in 2010, which means something is going to have to give. Blame some of those losses on bad luck or minimal run support if you want, but the reality is, the Pirates need to make at least one impact addition. With no high-level pitching prospects to count on next season, Pittsburgh's priority needs to be in finding pitching.

Behind pitching, the second-biggest need is probably an impact bat at either right field or first base. As for the situation at short, the Pirates will look externally for other shortstop options, but it's not the team's top priority. Pittsburgh doesn't have unlimited financial flexibility, and if it has to be picky about where it allocates dollars, shortstop is at the back of the list.

The team in the field looks sound. Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf and James McDonald are a good No. 3, 4 and 5 in the rotation. The four young relievers (including Wil Ledezma) look great. Jeff Karstens and Brian Burres are good long relievers. Are Zach Duke, Ryan Doumit, Andy LaRoche, Lastings Milledge and Daniel McCutchen good enough trade bait to land a No. 1 and 2 starter in the rotation?
-- Chuck V., Dingman Township, Pa.

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The Pirates can package any combination of those players that you have mentioned and not get a team to give up an ace in return. Quite frankly, the Pirates' chances of landing a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter are slim to none.

The club isn't going to be a player in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes, and he is the only true ace-type pitcher available in the free-agent market. The Pirates can seek top notch starting pitching through trades, but the price is going to be too high. Clubs that hold premier trade chips either want a strong package of good established players or, more than likely, a prospect-laden package. The group of players listed above is not full of top talent, and the Pirates aren't going to mortgage their future by giving up top prospects.

Do you think that Pedro Ciriaco could be the shortstop of the future?
-- Sam W., Jeannette, Pa.

No, I don't see Ciriaco filling more than a depth role in this organization. He doesn't have immense upside, and the club still points to Chase d'Arnaud (who spent the year in Double-A) as the organization's best shortstop prospect. If d'Arnaud can have a bounce-back year in 2011, it's not unfeasible that he could be ready to be the Pirates' everyday guy as early as '12.

Ciriaco received hardly any playing time as a September callup. You can expect him to be back with Triple-A Indianapolis to begin the season.

What do you think are in the plans for Milledge, Delwyn Young and LaRoche?
-- Eric Z., Bedford, Pa.

This is a good question, but a tough one to answer given that the Pirates are still evaluating how each might fit into the team's long-term plans. All three of those players are arbitration-eligible, so each is due a decent pay bump as a result. It's not a guarantee, however, that each will be offered arbitration.

I think it's a safe bet that Milledge will be tendered a contract given that the outfielder is still just 25 years old and could be an option if the Pirates decide to go with a platoon in right field. He was acquired just a year and a half ago, and I can't see the Pirates giving up on him just yet.

Young fills a good role off the bench for Pittsburgh, but the club ultimately has to decide if the pinch-hits are worth the increase in salary. If the Pirates believe they can get that offense from other internal options for less money, there's always a chance Young could be on his way elsewhere.

LaRoche's situation is most tenuous, and how he fares down in winter ball will weigh heavily in the Pirates' evaluation about whether to keep the infielder around. LaRoche is playing all four infield positions in Venezuela. His only shot at hanging onto a roster spot with the Pirates is to show them that he can be an effective extra infielder and that he can hit without consistent at-bats. LaRoche definitely didn't show the latter in 2010; consequently, don't be surprised if he is gone before Spring Training.

Are the Pirates sure enough on some of their younger players to consider offering them long-term contracts?
-- Dan D., Beavercreek, Pa.

It's not common for teams to begin approaching players with less than one year of Major League service time about signing long-term deals. Yes, it happens occasionally -- as it did a few years back with Evan Longoria and the Rays -- but it's not the norm. That said, it's probably a bit too early to expect extensions being offered to Pedro Alvarez or Jose Tabata, even though each is still viewed as integral pieces of the club's future.

McCutchen, however, could be a different case. The outfielder has now played more than a year and a half in the Majors and would seem to be a prime candidate for a contract extension in the next year or two. He is still under the team's control for five more seasons, but by inking him to a long-term deal now, the Pirates would get two things. They would have financial certainty (in other words, they will know exactly how much will be allocated to McCutchen's salary each season). And they could try to buy out a year or two of free agency from the center fielder.

Evan Meek and Joel Hanrahan could also be candidates for multiyear deals, possibly something similar to the two-year deal given to Matt Capps in 2008. Like McCutchen, Meek and Hanrahan have had sustained success for more than one year and have shown signs that such success isn't a fluke.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.