Greetings from Milwaukee, where I am assisting with MLB.com's coverage of the National League Central -- er, Championship -- Series. Raise your hand if back in late July you anticipated an NLCS matchup between two clubs from the Pirates' own division. Yeah, I didn't think I'd see much movement on that one.
But as the postseason progresses, the official start to the offseason creeps closer. And there are still several intriguing questions surrounding the Pirates' upcoming activity and future outlook. Let's get to some more of those here.
Do you think Paul Maholm will be back next season?
-- Dave C., Mercer, Pa.
I'd guess the chances are less than 50-50 for a return, though I am not yet comfortable ruling it out. Maholm said all year that he'd be agreeable to trying to renegotiate a new multi-year deal with the Pirates. But the organization never reciprocated, and now Maholm is soon going to see what his value is on the open market.
The free-agent market for starting pitching this winter is a weak one, which will benefit Maholm. A durable, experienced left-handed starter does have value, and with supply low, Maholm could be presented with an offer that exceeds what the Pirates would be comfortable paying.
If the Pirates were deeply interested in retaining Maholm, I'd have guessed the club would have made a run at him before the 29 other clubs were allowed to contact him. The absence of such would seem to suggest that the Pirates are ready to move on. The club is confident that it already has at least four-fifths of its rotation set for next season with Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia and James McDonald. That last opening could be filled by signing another free agent or by picking from other internal candidates.
Considering his struggles this past season, how do the Pirates now view Tony Sanchez?
-- Lee H., Morgantown, West Va.
If Sanchez's season has the Pirates discouraged, the staff is not letting on. Rather, members of the development and front office teams continue to say all the right things regarding Sanchez. An outside perspective, however, would suggest that there are some concerns.
There have been grumblings that Sanchez's dip in offensive production could be a byproduct of what the former first-round pick experienced in 2010. He missed significant time last summer after a pitch hit him in the face and broke his jaw. That incident, some believe, affected Sanchez's trust and comfort level in the batter's box this year. Any hesitancy can be catastrophic in this sport, and it would certainly be a deterrent in Sanchez's rise through the system.
On the positive end, Sanchez was able to play a full season this year, something he hadn't done before. The Pirates were also pleased to see Sanchez make improvements behind the plate during the second half of the year -- particularly on the mental and leadership sides.
One of the biggest concerns moving forward is going to be the bat. Sanchez has a high maintenance swing that never got into sync this year. That has to be remedied, and Sanchez will have to be relied upon to total more than 20 extra-base hits, which is all he had in 118 games this year.
Do you think Alex Presley, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata are going to be the three starters in the outfield for years to come? Or do you think the team should try and sign a home run hitter in the outfield?
-- Jason H., Steubenville, Ohio
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The Bucs have much bigger concerns than finding another outfielder this winter. Pursuing upgrades and options for first base, shortstop, catcher and finding a backup plan at third are more prominent issues to address. And that's on the offensive end alone.
You make a good point in that such an outfield trio would not be especially prolific with the power numbers. But if all three can be high on-base percentage guys, then they do have the ability to cause havoc in their own way. If the Pirates can protect the bunch with power from, say, the corner infield spots, the lack of exceptional outfield power is even less of a concern.
McCutchen and Tabata are locks to start next year. Presley doesn't have a job won, though he looks like the favorite at this point. Calling them the starters for 'years to come' is exceptionally premature, though. Don't forget that outfield prospect Starling Marte is getting closer, and Gorkys Hernandez still hasn't been written off as far as being a potential regular Major League outfielder. Presley still needs to prove that he can be productive at this level for a full season, too, especially once Major League pitchers learn his tendencies.
What are the odds of the Pirates signing McCutchen and Neil Walker to long-term deals before next year?
-- Zack H., Pittsburgh
I am not going to set odds, but I will say that this remains a priority to the Pirates. One misconception is that the Pirates must get both signed in the next year to prevent either from becoming a free agent. Not true. The Bucs have control of McCutchen and Walker for several more years, even if no multi-year deal is ever reached.
Late in the year, there was a sense that the Pirates were much closer to an agreement with Walker than with McCutchen. Don't be surprised if Walker and Pittsburgh come to terms on a long-term deal this winter, as the two sides are expected to continue discussions. Coming to terms with McCutchen, who is seeking more than Walker, is going to be the greater challenge.
With the myriad of baserunning errors that plagued the Pirates this season, how does manager Clint Hurdle and his staff plan to clean that area up?
-- Brian P. Summersville, West Va.
Just days into Spring Training, it was obvious that the Pirates were going to run themselves into a lot of outs this year. And actually, that wasn't among Hurdle's biggest concerns. He incessantly preached aggressiveness, encouraged his players to take chances. That's all well and good to a point, but now there is certainly a need to get smarter on the bases.
Maturity should help, to an extent. The experience gained by various young players this season will have them better prepared for baserunning situations next season. But there is also going to be increased instruction. Hurdle said he wants to establish a stronger differentiation between recklessness and aggressiveness. He wants to get the stolen base success rate closer to 75 percent. It was 68 percent this year.
Improving the quality of at-bats can have a positive effect on baserunning, too. Hurdle was limited in his ability to hit-and-run -- something he had hoped to do much more often -- because he wasn't always comfortable that his hitters were going to make contact. This Pirates club is not built to beat opponents with the three-run homer, so efficiency and effective baserunning is going to be a must.
How well did Luis Heredia perform this year? When will he be ready for Double-A or Triple-A?
-- Rich B., Lewistown, Pa.
In his first taste of professional competition, Heredia finished with a 4.75 ERA in 30 1/3 innings. He walked 19 and struck out 23 in those 12 appearances, which all came with the rookie club in the Gulf Coast League. Heredia just turned 17 in mid-August, so it is certainly a testament to his talent that he even pitched professionally at that age.
It is far too early to make set any expectations as to when Heredia will be bumped up to the high Minor League levels. Just know that the Pirates remain very high on Heredia's potential and that he has a head start by beginning his professional career at such a young age.