With high expectations for the Pittsburgh Pirates to finally move past the Wild Card game, they fell short of that feat and more. The Pirates finished five games under .500 and failed to reach the postseason for the first time since 2012. Andrew McCutchen was nowhere to be found while being the subject to trade rumors at the deadline. Their ace Gerrit Cole also was limited to 22 starts with injuries. They remained competitive in the Wild Card race until the last few weeks despite selling their closer Mark Melancon to the Washington Nationals. The future seems uncertain for the Pirates, who will be bringing back a majority of their starters but could be on the outside looking in again in 2017 if they do not address some of their issues.
Free agents for the Pirates include Neftali Feliz, Ryan Vogelsong, Ivan Nova, Matt Joyce, and Sean Rodriguez. Nova and Rodriguez are the ones who they should try to bring back the most. The Pirates were never known as big spenders, and that seems to be the expectation again as they won’t be in the market for any of the top free agents. The situation the Pirates have on their hands is very intriguing because they have a competitive roster that can win, but they have to keep an eye on the future if they don’t get off to a strong start.
Here are a couple of things that should be on the Pirates wish list this offseason.
1. A setup man or more help at the back of the bullpen
After trading Melancon to the Nationals, Tony Watson took over as the team’s closer. Moving Melancon was not a wave-the-white-flag trade, because manager Clint Hurdle had the confidence in sliding Watson to the closer role. Felipe Rivero, a young left-hander, was the big piece going back to Pittsburgh and is under control until 2022. Rivero pitched well as a member of the Pirates with a 3.29 ERA and 12.8 K/9, but his ability to serve as the closer remains to be seen.
With the Pirates vying for a postseason berth, Watson struggled to record the final three outs. In the month of September, Watson went 0-2 with an ERA north of 5.00. His struggles were notably apparent in a game in early September against the rival Cardinals, in which Watson blew a save that extended the Pirates’ losing streak to eight.
A reunion with Melancon seems unlikely, as do their odds to acquire someone like Kenley Jansen or Aroldis Chapman. The focus should be second-tier relievers such as Junichi Tazawa or Drew Storen. Perhaps they should even inquire on Greg Holland, who was sidelined for all of 2016.
2. Determine who will be the full-time leadoff hitter
Throughout the Pirates lineup, they have about six different hitters who could bat leadoff. John Jaso led off 79 times, which was a team high. Josh Harrison was second with 37 games, and Jordy Mercer third with 24 games. The roster is filled with athletes, but it was interesting for the Pirates have someone lead off who did not steal a base all season, and who spent the beginning of his career as a catcher.
Gregory Polanco also has experience, leading off in 96 games back in 2015. Someone like Polanco or Harrison will be able to give them more explosiveness at the top of the lineup. Hurdle should make a change at the top for this offense to get back on track next season.
3. A number-two or -three veteran starting pitcher
The Pirates pitching rotation is extremely young, starting at the top with Cole, who is only 25 years old. Four different pitchers (Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, Tyler Glasnow, and Steven Brault) made their major-league debuts in 2016, and Pirates management thinks highly of all four as major contributors going forward. Taillon was the most impressive, but he also suffered through lingering shoulder issues.
This generation is all about inning limits and protecting young arms so they won’t have to undergo Tommy John surgery early in their careers. A veteran starter who can take some pressure off this young rotation would do wonders for the Pirates. Re-signing Nova would be their best move because he is 29 and was very effective in his few months there. They also could try to catch lightning in a bottle on a shorter-term deal with an older pitcher like they did with A.J. Burnett a couple of seasons ago if they get outbid for Nova.
4. Add even more to the farm system by trading one of their outfielders
The Pirates might be the team that has to do the most self-evaluating out of any team in all of baseball. They should be better than last season, but could be in a scenario where there are not enough seats at the table in regards to reaching the postseason. They easily could finish in third place in the division again, and the Mets, Nationals, Giants, and Dodgers all should be back in contention as well.
The Pirates already have Austin Meadows, the 22nd- ranked prospect by Baseball America, lurking as someone who could reach the big leagues next season. They also have another outfielder in Adam Frazier, a sixth- round draft pick back in 2013 who appeared in 66 games while hitting .301 with a .767 OPS.
Polanco just signed an extension last year, and Starling Marte is under team control until 2020. McCutchen will be a free agent after 2o18, and as much of a stretch that this could be, they should engage in trade conversations regarding McCutchen this winter. McCutchen did have an off year, but I don’t necessarily believe that his trade value is much worse. For the Pirates to get a monster package, they would have to trade McCutchen while he still has a two more years of control, not as a rental who could walk. It will also be difficult to make the postseason if they trade McCutchen, but they have to ask themselves if there is a point to keeping him if they end up getting knocked out right away.
5. Keep the bench as versatile as possible
What teams should strive for are players on their bench who have the ability to play multiple positions. We saw it with the champion Cubs with guys like Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Willson Contreras. Sean Rodriguez has the ability to play every position on the field besides catcher. He also is one of the high-character, enthusiastic guys in the clubhouse that has been with this team for the past two seasons.
Meadows or Frazier can serve as the fourth outfielder, and they also have incredible athleticism. Mercer also has the ability to play around the infield, despite being considered as a shortstop.
The Pirates have the talent. They have the experience of playing meaningful baseball. The Pirates couldn’t be more deadlocked on who they are, but this wish list can help them in the short-term and the long-term.