McCutchen first on Bucs' Hot Stove agenda

Even if Bucs pick up his option, star outfielder could exit via offseason trade

McCutchen first on Bucs' Hot Stove agenda

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates spent the past month looking back and plotting their path forward, gathering to review their disappointing 2017 season while planning for what comes next. But the time for those meetings ended with the final out of the World Series, and now comes the offseason.

After consecutive losing years, the Pirates clearly have room to improve. But their roster is somewhat static -- unlikely to sustain any significant losses, but seemingly without room to make impactful additions. So, where do they go from here?

"We certainly acknowledge that this was not the year we anticipated or expected. We'll be aggressive in ways that we can improve going forward," general manager Neal Huntington said on the final day of the Pittsburgh's 75-win season. "We recognize there is a good core in place. We recognize there is good starting pitching. There are players who are still in their prime years. There are some players that are poised for bounce-backs.

"There's also some work to be done. We'll continue to be creative and aggressive to look for ways to help this organization get better."

Free agents:
Joaquin Benoit, John Jaso

Jordy Mercer, George Kontos, Gerrit Cole, Felipe Rivero

What about Cutch?
The Pirates' first decision of the offseason might be their biggest one. Within five days, they must exercise or buy out Andrew McCutchen's $14.5 million option for 2018 -- the franchise player's final year under club control. The Bucs can either pick up his option or pay him $1 million to become a free agent.

Cutch's monster day vs. O's

Then the Pirates must decide whether they will keep McCutchen or entertain trade offers, as they did early last winter before essentially committing to keep him after the Winter Meetings. Huntington has said the Bucs still view McCutchen as their center fielder, possibly an indication that they will keep him heading into next season.

Who's on third?
The Pirates have plenty of options at third base, including Gold Glove Award finalist David Freese, but will they have Jung Ho Kang back? Kang is playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, shaking off the rust following a year away from organized baseball, but it won't matter if he's game-ready if he can't secure a work visa.

If Kang is able to return, the Bucs can pencil him in as their starting third baseman and a middle-of-the-order bat. That would also deepen their bench by making Freese, Sean Rodriguez and Adam Frazier true utility men, not starters. If Kang can't return, the Pirates could look to add another infielder to ease Freese's workload.

Will they stay or go?
The Pirates are currently projected to carry a payroll just north of $102 million, which would be the highest Opening Day mark in franchise history. But considering their decline in attendance this year, will the budget allow such a figure? If not, can they clear salary while still upgrading the team and attempting to contend?

Their highest-paid players are projected to be McCutchen, catcher Francisco Cervelli ($10.5 million), second baseman Josh Harrison ($10.25 million) and starter Ivan Nova ($8.67 million before performance bonuses) -- four players with varying degrees of trade value.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.