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Decisions loom for Bucs, free agents like Burnett

Decisions loom for Bucs, free agents like Burnett

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Decisions loom for Bucs, free agents like Burnett

ST. LOUIS -- The Pirates' clubhouse was full of brave smiles and heartfelt hugs Wednesday night, as if players wanted to wrap up in the spirit of 2013 -- when the Bucs ended two decades of losing records and appeared in the postseason for the first time since 1992.

Of course, there always comes a time to let go. This is especially true of the Pirates' potential free agents. But if they want to linger in the warmth of a special season, they have that right. Decisions, however, loom soon.

NLDS

"Who knows?" 36-year-old pitcher A.J. Burnett -- who last month said he wasn't sure if he was going to retire, but may not want to go out the way he did in this series -- told a reporter. "I'm not thinking about it. ... Down time."

The answers were similar from key Pirates who could hit the open market. Those include outfielder Marlon Byrd and first baseman Justin Morneau -- who were acquired in trades with the Mets and Twins, respectively, to help the Bucs' late-season push -- and Clint Barmes, who has been Pittsburgh's main shortstop for the better part of two years, but realizes there is an heir apparent in the room.

Outside of Pittsburgh, the acquisition of Burnett before the 2012 season was seen merely as the Yankees getting rid of a struggling pitcher they no longer wanted, and someone to whom the Yanks paid $13 million of the $33 million they owed him over a two-year period. Little did anyone suspect he was exactly what the Pirates needed.

Burnett's 16-10 record with a 3.51 ERA in 2012 was a big reason the Bucs surprised experts by being competitive for much of last season. Surrounded this year by a rotation that saw righty Charlie Morton and free-agent lefty Francisco Liriano regain health after elbow injuries, and the prodigious Gerrit Cole give a lift after joining the rotation in June, Burnett remained competitive by going 10-11 with a 3.30 ERA in 30 starts.

Now the question is whether Burnett will continue to pitch, and if he will do so in black and gold. During Spring Training, the veteran contemplated retiring at the end of this season, and in a September interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, he said he was 50-50 on whether he'd return next season. This year ended not with glory, but with Burnett being passed over for the most important start of the year.

The acquisitions of Byrd and Morneau helped boost the Pirates late. Now the team has an overabundance of options and will have to make tough decisions.

Byrd, 36, entered the season at the low end in terms of open-market value. He spent the winter playing in Mexico working on hitting the curveball -- an extreme step for someone as far into his career -- and signed a one-year, $700,000 contact with the Mets.

But home run power often equals earning power. Byrd hit a career-high 24 homers, and his .291 batting average in 147 games, including 30 games with the Pirates, was his highest since he hit .293 with the Cubs in 2010. He appears in position for one more big deal, but he said Wednesday, "I'm not even talking about that." Byrd was still processing the joys and heartaches of his first postseason trip.

"They brought me here for one thing, to help this team get to the World Series, and it's tough to fall short," Byrd said. "It's just excitement. I'm glad I got the opportunity to do it for the first time, and hopefully I'll do it again."

However, Jose Tabata is just 25, and after down numbers in 2011-12, he hit .282 with a .343 on-base percentage in 106 games this year. Tabata could be back to the player he was in 2010 as a rookie, when he batted .299. Going with Tabata could mean the Pirates take a hit in the power department, but Tabata joining left fielder Starling Marte and center fielder and National League Most Valuable Player Award candidate Andrew McCutchen could make for a dynamic young outfield. If the Bucs need power, they've shown a willingness to get it on the open market.

But Byrd and the Pirates have made a positive impression on one another, and there could be some common ground. Expect Byrd to weigh his options, and there are expected to be plenty.

Unlike Byrd, Morneau, who turns 33 next May 15, is coming off a big contract (six years, $80 million with the Twins) and is not at the top of his earning potential. Morneau finished the year at .259 with 17 home runs, and he could see a jump in his numbers if he remains in the NL.

"[Free agency] is the furthest thing from my mind," Morneau said. "I appreciate that I was able to come over here, join this team, join this race. Whatever happens in the future, we'll see. It was a great experience, and you draw off your experiences. This is a place that has been fun for me. You never know what can happen."

The situations with Byrd and Morneau could have an impact on arbitration-eligible left-handed-hitting Garrett Jones, whose numbers this year fell off to a .233 batting average with 15 home runs and 51 RBIs, after hitting .274 and banging out 27 homers and 86 RBIs in 2012.

Whether the Pirates retain Byrd, Morneau or both will affect Jones' playing time potential. Jones earned $4.5 million this season as a second-time arbitration-eligible player.

Pittsburgh signed Barmes, who turns 35 on March 6, for two years and $10.5 million before last season to put a well-above-average fielder between second baseman Neil Walker and third baseman Pedro Alvarez.

The club has liked his defense, but as this season progressed, manager Clint Hurdle began increasing the playing time of the more offensively adept Jordy Mercer, who hit .285 and had a .336 on-base percentage in 103 games. Mercer is heading into his age-27 season, which is considered a player's prime. Barmes likes Pittsburgh and will find out what the team's plan is before seeing if other clubs are looking for the shortstop defense that he gave the Bucs.

"I'm excited to talk with the Pirates and see what their plan is," Barmes said. "Obviously, I want to play. They know that. Mercer wants to play. They know that. It's going to be interesting just to see what the options are.

"I haven't put a lot of thought into it, up until this point. We've been pretty busy. But we'll look at all the options. It's a pretty big decision to make. This is where I want to be, a group of guys I enjoy playing with and working with. I hope that can continue. It depends on where the situations are. It's a tough one to answer, because I don't really know."

Also eligible for free agency are righty reliever Kyle Farnsworth -- who signed with the team in August and went 1-1 with two saves and a 1.04 ERA in nine games, but was not on the NL Division Series roster -- and catcher John Buck, who arrived in the Byrd trade and made nine appearances (.309, two RBIs) for the Bucs, while also serving as a backup to Russell Martin in the postseason.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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