While the Pirates will not be making a run at the top group of free agents this winter, the club does have several offseason needs that could be addressed through that free-agent market. The challenge will be finding the right fits at the right price in a market that is not especially strong.
Though the Pirates improved their win total by 15 games, the recent 72-win season exposed holes that remain. The most prominent are on the offensive end, which suggests that the Bucs' targets over the next few months will be in this area.
Vacancies at first base and catcher will be among the biggest priorities. Upgrades and additional options at shortstop, third base and in the outfield will also be considered.
Attention will also be paid to the free-agent pitching market, though it, too, is not a strong one this year. After declining lefty Paul Maholm's club option, the Pirates have an open rotation spot to fill. There are internal options to consider, but don't discount the possibility of Pittsburgh also making a run at a middle-tier free-agent pitcher to improve its depth.
The Pirates have dollars to spend this winter, but the balance of building for long-term success vs. constructing a roster for immediate results remains very much a real one in Pittsburgh. General manager Neal Huntington has a history of signing players to short contracts (one or two years) rather than allocating significant dollars over a long-term period. This method is likely to continue.
Also to consider is the fact that the Pirates' payroll is already set to go up because of all the arbitration-eligible players. Players like Joel Hanrahan, Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton are among those who will see a natural increase in salary.
A weak free-agent market increases the likelihood that the Pirates will try to address their needs through the trade market. The waiver wire, Minor League free-agent market and Rule 5 Draft will also be outlets for potential upgrades.
Free agents: Derrek Lee, 1B; Ryan Ludwick, OF; Ryan Doumit, C; Chris Snyder, C; Ronny Cedeno, SS; Maholm, LHP
Eligible for arbitration: Jason Grilli, RHP; Hanrahan, RHP; Garrett Jones, 1B/OF; Karstens, RHP; Evan Meek, RHP; Morton, RHP; Ross Ohlendorf, RHP; Steve Pearce, 1B/OF; Chris Resop, RHP; Jose Veras, RHP; Brandon Wood, INF
Catcher: The Pirates declined options on Doumit ($15.5 million over two years) and Snyder ($6.75 million), leaving the club without a true starting catcher. With the free-agent market weak in catching depth, the Bucs will explore the possibility of re-signing Doumit or Snyder at a lower cost.
The club's other internal options -- which include Michael McKenry, Jason Jaramillo and Matt Pagnozzi -- would seem to fit better in a backup role than a regular one. Keep in mind that with first-round pick Tony Sanchez moving to Double-A last season, the Pirates might be hesitant to block his path by signing another catcher to a multiyear deal.
First base: The Pirates are targeting Lee, though it's unknown whether Lee has mutual interest in returning. Acquired at the Trade Deadline, Lee hit .337 with seven homers and 18 RBIs in 28 games. Lee might not be able to match the $7.25 million contract he signed with the Orioles last offseason, but he could be coveted by clubs that miss out on Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder.
The Bucs need a contingency plan in case Lee gets away, and it would seem like the team could go one of two routes. The club could find a right-handed-hitting first baseman to split time with Garrett Jones at first. Or the team could move Jones out of the picture by finding a full-time fit. With the offense in need of a boost, first base is going to be a critical spot to fill.
Shortstop: The Pirates declined Cedeno's $3 million option. The club's internal replacement for Cedeno would be Chase d'Arnaud, though d'Arnaud did not have as strong a defensive year and had trouble at the plate in his first taste of the big leagues.
Starting pitching: After letting Maholm walk, it would behoove the Pirates to see what other upgrades are available this winter. It appears as if they have four rotation locks -- Karstens, Kevin Correia, Morton and James McDonald. The club does have internal options for the fifth opening, with Brad Lincoln leading that list. But none of the returning starters has had sustained Major League success, and none would be a top-of-the-rotation starter elsewhere. That means there is always room to improve, and the Pirates will look to do so.
Bullpen: There is no closer question this winter, though the bridge between the starters and Hanrahan is a bit in question. The Pirates' arbitration decisions will go a long way in clearing up this picture. Resop, Veras and Grilli could all fill setup roles if the Bucs opt to bring any of the three back. Meek will be returning, and the Pirates have a handful of young promising relievers that should be ready to step up into more critical roles. Still, Huntington has consistently signed free-agent relievers to Minor League deals in an effort to economically build a 'pen. He'll likely look for some hidden gems this winter, too.
Strictly in terms of base salaries due players, the Pirates finished the year with a payroll of close to $46 million. About $4.86 million of that was added at the Trade Deadline, when the Pirates took on the salaries of Lee and Ludwick. Pittsburgh has 11 arbitration-eligible players. Though the club will not tender a contract to all of them, there will be a natural payroll bump because of the increase in salaries due several of these players.
The Pirates, partially in part to higher home attendance, have money to spend. The club is mum on exactly how much, but there will be flexibility to go out and add even after taking into account the arbitration raises. It seems likely that the Bucs will open the 2012 season with a payroll above $50 million.