PITTSBURGH -- In his first six offseasons as Pittsburgh's general manager, Neal Huntington was a minnow in the free-agent pool, bobbing in the shallow end for bargains he hoped could steer the Pirates toward respectability.
Huntington's chore has changed, but not his role. He will still be a relatively minor player in free agency, now tasked with maintaining the level the Bucs reached in a 94-win season.
Huntington is the perfect purser for the Pirates' purse-strings. As his bankroll has increased, so has his aim. From missing on Lyle Overbay at $5 million in 2011, he hit on Kevin Correia (24 wins in '11-12 for $7 million), Clint Barmes and two pre-2013 signings (lefty Francisco Liriano and catcher Russell Martin ) that could earn him an Executive of the Year Award.
Now, the Pirates have more money and fewer holes, a wonderful combination. Due to an additional $25 million in their share of MLB's national TV package and to increased attendance -- by 40 percent in the three seasons with Clint Hurdle as manager -- the club can loosen its tight fist.
The Bucs' top free-agent target is one of their own, right-hander A.J. Burnett. If he and his family decide to go on, little negotiation will be required to make it happen. In all likelihood, the Pirates will tender him the qualifying offer of $14.1 million, he will accept to get locked in, and the sides then will continue to try to hammer out a replacement deal in the two-year, $25 million range.
The Pirates have six other free agents and, minutes after their postseason run ended with the defeat in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, Huntington went on record with, "We'd like to keep them all." But he was being diplomatic, not realistic.
With the exception of Burnett, even the ones they would like to re-sign will not do so within the five-day exclusivity window following the final out of the World Series. Marlon Byrd could have his ear bent by what he hears on the open market, and Barmes and Justin Morneau may be turned back toward Pittsburgh by what they hear.
Seen as an undesirable destination in recent years, the Pirates were flatly rejected by free agents at the top of their list. With the rejuvenation of both the team and its passionate fan base, that perception has changed. Ironic, then, that the Bucs' list has shrunk.
Free agents: SS Barmes, RHP Burnett, C John Buck, OF Byrd, RHP Kyle Farnsworth, RHP Jeff Karstens, 1B Morneau
Eligible for arbitration: 3B Pedro Alvarez, 1B-RF Garrett Jones, RHP Vin Mazzaro, C Michael McKenry, RHP Mark Melancon, RHP Charlie Morton, OF Felix Pie, 1B Gaby Sanchez, OF Travis Snider, 2B Neil Walker
Non-tender candidates: Jones, McKenry, Pie, Sanchez, Snider
Club options: None
Player option: LHP Wandy Rodriguez ($13 million -- $5.5 million payable by Houston; $2.5 million buyout)
Areas of need
First base: This has been un unstable spot for years. The last time someone started more than 70 percent of the games here was Adam LaRoche in 2008. It's the club's main free-agent target, and switch-hitting Kendrys Morales tops Huntington's list. Barring outside help, Andrew Lambo, a 32-homer man as a Minor League outfielder, tried the position in winter ball and may be an option.
Right field: Huntington will go all-out to re-sign Byrd, but he has to balance that with what becomes of Jose Tabata, and how much more time does Gregory Polanco, the organization's No. 2-ranked prospect, need? Coming off a prove-yourself $700,000 contract, even a hefty raise makes Byrd affordable, but the Pirates won't overspend for an alternate veteran option. Giancarlo Stanton's name keeps popping up, and a blockbuster deal for him involving Tabata (his team-friendly long-term deal appeals to the Marlins) and some of the bullpen depth is very possible.
Infield: Even if they are able to re-sign Barmes as a backup for new starting shortstop Jordy Mercer, the Pirates will need support at second and third, and will once again seek a Brandon Inge or John McDonald type of veteran. The market will be flooded with the type, so Huntington will have many options.
Rotation: There isn't an obvious vacancy, especially if Burnett stays, but there is the fresh memory of breakdowns -- physical and otherwise -- having forced the use of nine starters by Mother's Day. So the Bucs may seek insurance, and the top target could be Josh Johnson, who fits the bounce-back profile Huntington has played so well with Liriano, Burnett and Melancon.
2014 payroll: If it approaches $100 million, as many expect, Huntington could have a stash of about $20 million to spend. That accounts for the $64 million already committed to 16 players under contract (including anticipated raises for arbitration-eligibles) and re-signing both Burnett and Byrd for an approximate total of $17 million.
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.