The Pittsburgh contingent will enter the front doors of the Gaylord Opryland Hotel -- the Nashville, Tenn., base of the Winter Meetings beginning Monday -- with a freshly trimmed shopping list. Two short seasons removed from bottoming out with a 105-loss 2010 season, the Pirates are confident of having reached the next-level stage. The Bucs can see the hump. Now they just have to get over it. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington made his first charge up that hill by corralling free-agent catcher Russell Martin. Huntington is left trying to further trick out the team's solid core with the right finishing pieces to make full-season contention a reality. Some of those pieces are needed for the very foundation: a big arm or two for the back end of the rotation. Others are needed as complements, particularly around the infield.
The talent pool in which Huntington will wade could change dramatically at the Friday midnight ET deadline for tendering contracts, when numerous players not given the offer will be set loose in free agent land. The Pittsburgh front office is sworn to never use small-market alibis, but the truth is, clubs such as the Pirates depend on going on bargain hunts and bagging big game. That will most likely also involve the annual Rule 5 Draft, which will take place on the final morning of the Meetings, on Thursday. The Pirates have made a selection in each of Huntington's first five Winter Meetings, including Evan Meek, who was taken out of the Tampa Bay organization in 2007, and developed into an All-Star reliever. Club needs Starting pitcher(s): Manager Clint Hurdle feels real good about having A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez on top -- calling them the best 1-2 he's ever had -- and about James McDonald being able to learn to finish. And prospects Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson and even Gerrit Cole are on deck. But the Pirates need veterans for depth -- they went through 10 starters last season -- and for innings. For all the emphasis the Bucs placed on having starters pitch deeper, in 2012 they gave them only 11 more innings than they had in 2011. It wore down the bullpen, a major component of Collapse II. Whom they can or need to trade RHP Joel Hanrahan: The number of contenders in need of a reliable closer makes him a very valuable commodity, and the Pirates could turn him into help in a more needy area. They probably should have done that at last July's Trade Deadline; with only three save opportunities after Aug. 8, he was an unnecessary luxury. 1B-OF Garrett Jones: A crowded outfield and a new possible first-base platoon of Gaby Sanchez-Clint Robinson makes the 27-homer man expendable, and he could particularly appeal to an American League club in need of a full-time designated hitter. OF Jose Tabata: He is young (24) and affordable ($12.5 million on four years remaining on contract) enough to appeal to a team convinced a change of scenery would ignite his game. Top prospects RHP Gerrit Cole: The Bucs may have had a plan in mind in promoting 2011's top Draft choice to Indianapolis at the end of the '12 Minor League season. Cole step-stoned through all four levels of the system last year, compiling a composite record of 9-7 with a 2.80 ERA. Also: RHP Jameson Taillon, C Ramon Cabrera, SS Jordy Mercer, OF Gregory Polanco, LHP Justin Wilson, RHP Bryan Morris, C Tony Sanchez. Big contracts they may unload Not "unload," but Hanrahan and Jones, who between them figure to land contracts totaling $11.5 million in arbitration, could be moved off the payroll in deals. Payroll summary In-season acquisitions, particularly that of Rodriguez, pumped up the Pirates' 2012 payroll about 20 percent from the Opening Day figure of $52 million to $61.5 million. The new artificial ceiling is $65 million, and while $15 million has come off the books (free agents Kevin Correia, Rod Barajas, Jason Grilli; Erik Bedard), raises (Andrew McCutchen from $500,000 to $4.5 million in Year 2 of his six-year contract) and arbitration gains will counter that. A successful pursuit of Martin maxed out the payroll -- until trades or non-tenders create more headroom.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.