Inbox: Will Lee return to Pittsburgh next season?

Inbox: Will Lee return to Pittsburgh next season?

PITTSBURGH -- Here's the first of what will be a weekly Inbox feature on pirates.com throughout the offseason. Keep the questions rolling my way.

I think it's clear that Derrek Lee produced after becoming a Bucco. What is the possibility of his return? I know that the Pirates have options like Garrett Jones, Matt Hague and even Pedro Alvarez, but I think someone like Lee could be beneficial for next year. Any chance he'll get re-signed?
-- Stephen B., Rochester, NY

More than 50 percent of the Inbox submissions I received over the past two weeks asked this same question, in one form or another. It seems to be, hands down, the most popular topic among fans as the offseason arrives.

The Pirates will make a run at re-signing Lee. That much they have made known. The club realizes it lacks in options at first base, and Lee showed (when he was healthy) how substantial an impact he can have in the middle of this Pirates lineup. The organization is willing to make a competitive offer to try and convince Lee to stay, but no one seems to have much inkling as to whether Lee is interested in seriously entertaining that option.

My working relationship with Lee lasted less than two months, though it took only a fraction of that time to discern how private a person he is, particularly when dealing with the media. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it makes it that much more challenging to decipher what he is thinking.

If he is leaning toward coming back, he didn't make that known. If he has no interest in returning, he didn't give away those signs either. Lee maintained that he is going to keep his options open and that he had not determined anything about his baseball future yet. That includes whether or not he is even going to play another season. Now at the age of 36, Lee did leave the door open to retirement.

It probably didn't help the Pirates' case that during Lee's time in Pittsburgh, the club went 18-38. He didn't see the standing-room only crowds and feel the buzz that was there before his arrival. The club didn't necessarily provide a strong argument that this team is on the cusp of competing for a division title. That could hurt the Pirates' chances. If Lee wants to play in 2012 and he knows it is going to be his last year (or close to it), perhaps he tries to find a club that appears closer to winning.

Also, outside of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, the free-agent market for first basemen is a weak one. That means that the Pirates will not be the only club pursuing Lee. As you learned in your high school microeconomics class, less supply will drive up demand. In this case, the Pirates always run the risk of too much competition driving Lee's price out of the Pirates' range.

By mid-July, the Pirates had us all believing that Clint Hurdle was a miracle man. After that, I watched my beloved Pirates implode. Where do fans and players find solace in this season's results, and what is management's thinking on how to prepare the team to compete beyond July next year?

-- Tom F., Jupiter, Fla.

First of all, the offense must improve. It was sufficient for the first four months of the season only because the starting pitching was so dominant. But when that pitching slipped, the offense did nothing to lift it up. A productive Pedro Alvarez could be part of the answer, but the Pirates are going to need to look carefully to see what offensive upgrades can be made this winter. If the offense does not improve, the Pirates will not finish above .500 next season.

The Pirates will not have to be so concerned about pitching fatigue next year, which should help. Whereas the starters seemed to hit a collective wall late in July, this group should be able to push past that point better in 2012. Still, there needs to be improved depth. When Paul Maholm and Kevin Correia went down with injuries in mid-August, the club felt the effects of their absences. The pitching talent in the Minors is still heavily concentrated in the lower levels, which means that the Pirates would be well-served to try and bring in another proven starter to solidify the rotation.

General manager Neal Huntington also said something interesting during a late-season discussion we had regarding the team's late-season collapse. He mentioned that the mental fatigue of playing winning baseball is something that most on this team had not experienced before, and that perhaps that aided in the downfall. When the club started to struggle late in July, players seemed to collectively try and do too much to get out of the funk, rather than trusting what got the team to the top of the division to begin with. It's all a part of the maturation process, and again, the Pirates can only hope such an issue won't surface moving forward.

What do you think the Pirates are going to do at the catching position? I believe they should try and re-sign either Ryan Doumit or Chris Snyder to lower contracts and not pick up the options.

-- Jason H. Steubenville, Ohio

The Pirates' catching situation is one of the biggest areas that needs addressing this offseason. The club is not going to pick up club options on Doumit or Snyder, though that doesn't preclude the organization from seeing if either will come back under a renegotiated deal. Relying on Michael McKenry or Jason Jaramillo to be the regular catcher is not going to help the Pirates improve their offense. Both would be a fine backup, but neither is a proven No. 1 guy.

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The free agent market is thin at the catcher position, so if the Pirates are unable to re-sign Doumit or Snyder (don't expect both to come back), then the club will likely see what's out there in the trade market. The challenge could be finding someone to come in under a short enough deal so that the Pirates don't block top catching prospect Tony Sanchez from making a push toward Pittsburgh in 2012 or 2013.

I saw the Pirates are sending top Draft pick Gerrit Cole to the Arizona Fall League. I find it interesting that Cole's college teammate, Trevor Bauer, who was also drafted in June, pitched in Double-A this summer and had a tremendous strikeout-walk ratio. The Bucs waited to sign Cole and then decided not to toss him in at any level. This is a bit confusing given that there is a need for pitching in Pittsburgh. When might we see Cole at PNC Park?

-- Keith S., Leola, Pa.

You cannot compare the paths of Bauer and Cole because both players took considerably different approaches in their negotiating processes. Bauer likely left dollars on the table by signing before the end of June. In doing so, he gave Arizona the ability to send him right out to the Minors. There were more than two months of Minor League season left at that point.

Cole, on the other hand, waited until the Aug. 15 deadline to sign. By the time all that paperwork was completed, there were only three weeks left until the end of the Minor League year. And because Cole had endured a lengthy layoff since the end of the college season, the Pirates did not feel comfortable sending him out to pitch right away.

Most top Draft picks go the route that Cole did, waiting until the last hours and minutes to sign in hopes of getting a few more dollars than they would have had they signed right away. What that does, though, is delay the start of the development process.

Because the Pirates could not get Cole out to Minor League ball, they are sending him to the AFL to log some innings at a competitive level. In an ideal scenario, the signing deadline would get moved up so that players and teams are forced to negotiate earlier in the summer. This would benefit all sides and allow players to jump-start their careers right away.

The Pirates are not setting a timeline on Cole's track to Pittsburgh, but the fact that he is an advanced college pitcher means that he has a chance to move up quickly. An arrival late in the 2013 season can't be ruled out.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.