In light of what is going on in the central part of our state, this seems like a silly time to craft a witty introduction to try and convince you that this week's Inbox is worth reading. The Pirates are certainly nowhere near the top sports storyline in this region right now, nor should they be. But if you are looking for a distraction or simply remain curious about the Pirates' offseason plans, I offer you answers to another batch of your questions:
What are the Pirates' plans for outfield prospect Starling Marte? Could he be traded in the offseason for a power-hitting position player the Pirates are looking for? -- Frank B., Hermitage, Pa.
The club's current plans have Marte down in the Dominican Republic, where the 23-year-old outfielder is playing winter ball. He is, however, sidelined with a groin strain that he suffered a week ago. You bring up an interesting possibility about Marte being used as a trade chip, and I don't think it's a possibility that should be ignored.
The Bucs have glaring holes to fill this offseason, led by their need to find a first baseman, catcher and shortstop. I'd throw a starting pitcher on that list, too, though the organization seems to be most concerned with the position player deficiencies. If you look through the list of free agents available at any of these positions (not including the top tier of elite players), the options are not especially intriguing. That makes it more likely that the Pirates are going to have to address some of their needs by making trades.
General manager Neal Huntington has expressed a willingness to trade prospects for the right return, and there were whispers that Marte was going to be made available back at the Trade Deadline if the Pirates had found the right package. He is still not untouchable.
Assuming Marte remains in the organization, he is likely to begin the 2012 season in Triple-A.
With Evan Meek hopefully back to his top form next season, is there a chance that Joel Hanrahan becomes a trading piece that can be used to bring in a reliable veteran at catcher, first base, or shortstop?
-- J.T.A., Springfield, Va.
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Don't rule it out. As valuable as Hanrahan was for the Bucs this season, his emergence as one of the league's best closers puts him position to net the Pirates a nice return if the club is willing to deal him. There are clubs looking for closers, and Hanrahan is going to be pretty affordable until he becomes a free agent after the 2014 season.
Huntington has always held the belief that a bullpen can be built without allocating significant financial resources to it. You could argue that the closer role might not fit into this theory, but you could also find numerous examples of closers being unable to replicate their success for multiple seasons.
I'm certainly not predicting that Hanrahan is going to falter in 2012. It's just worth noting that Huntington is hesitant to allocate big bucks to relievers. Perhaps he sees this as an opportunity to address other needs by dealing Hanrahan and then going with an internal option to fill the vacant closer role. Meek would seem to be the obvious one to step in, though manager Clint Hurdle even noted late in the year that Jason Grilli strikes him as someone with the ability to close.
If there is one thing that could hurt Hanrahan's value this winter it is that one of the strengths of this free-agent market is with relievers. A shallower market would have driven up Hanrahan's value.
If Paul Maholm does not return in 2012, who, in the Minor League system, is the best option to replace him, if the Pirates do not sign a free agent? -- Cody Y., Johnstown, Pa.
Right now, it is looking like the Pirates' rotation will include Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton, Kevin Correia and James McDonald. If the club does not add anyone else from outside the organization, the internal options likely start with Brad Lincoln. I'd expect him to get the first shot to hold down the fifth rotation spot.
Lincoln isn't the only one who would get a chance to win a starting job in Spring Training. Jeff Locke, Rudy Owens, Justin Wilson and possibly even Chris Leroux would be other pitchers likely given the opportunity to be in that competition.
Despite having some internal pitching options, I'd still expect the Pirates to make some kind of splash to sign or acquire another starting pitcher. You can never have too much pitching depth, and with Morton (hip surgery) uncertain to be ready for Opening Day, the Bucs could use the extra cushion.
If Maholm is not re-signed, do you think the Pirates may try to make left-handers Tony Watson or Danny Moskos a starter since both were once starting pitchers?
-- John G., Monessen, Pa.
No. Neither Moskos, nor Watson, has started regularly since 2009. Both were taken out of starting roles in the Minors because the Pirates determined that their best chance at making it to the Majors and having sustained success would be as relievers. The Bucs are not so desperate for starting pitchers that they are going to push either young lefty back into a starting role.
That said, I do think both Moskos and Watson could play key roles in Pittsburgh's bullpen next year. The club does not have any other left-handed relievers on the roster, and Hurdle has made it clear in the past that he prefers having at least two lefties in the 'pen.
Is there any thought of adding a third baseman, such as Aramis Ramirez, and shifting Pedro Alvarez to first base? His move across the diamond has been rumored since he was drafted. -- Jeremy D., Morgantown, West Va.
I do not foresee the Bucs going in such a direction with their offseason pursuits. The Pirates, to my knowledge, are not having discussions about Alvarez changing positions. While few are convinced that Alvarez is certain to be a third baseman for his entire career, he has not proven himself to be enough of a defensive liability to warrant the change.
Also, you have to consider what a position change would do to his mindset getting ready for the 2012 season. Alvarez is already coming off a subpar offensive year and ended the season with his mind clouded with negativity and questions. The last thing the Pirates need to do is force him to take on another daunting task.
The key for Alvarez is to simplify what is around him and eliminate distractions. That can help to give him the necessary space to focus particularly on the offensive side of his game. His potential is too valuable to jeopardize by adding something else to his to-do list right now.
Do you see the Pirates starting the 2012 season with Robbie Grossman, who is tearing up the Arizona Fall League, in Triple-A Indianapolis and ending the season with him in Pittsburgh?
-- Bill P., Citrus Springs, Fla.
Grossman is likely to begin the year in Double-A, a level that he has not played at before. Despite his terrific showing in high Class A and the AFL this year, Grossman can benefit from making one step up, not two, to begin 2012. Under this current management regime, the Pirates have, if anything, been conservative with moving their prospects up the system.
Starting Grossman in Double-A will introduce him to another level of competition. Should he thrive there, the Pirates could very well bump him to Triple-A midseason. Ending the season in Pittsburgh can't be ruled out, but it's unlikely for next season.