The good news about trying to right the Pirates this winter is that the list of things to do is clearly defined. Coming off a 57-105 season that was the franchise's worst since 1952—the 42-112 team made famous by Joe Garagiola for years on NBC's Game of the Week—the Pirates need everything. After all, they fired their manager after finishing last in the major leagues in runs allowed (5.35 per game) and Defensive Efficiency (.673), and last in the National League and next-to-last in the majors in runs scored (3.62 per game).
So, what would I do if I were the Pirates' general manager?
First up is to find a new manager, as John Russell was boxed a day after the season ended. Russell lost an amazing 299 games in three years, though to be fair, his tenure was marked by continual roster turnover as GM Neal Huntington completely stripped to the organization to the core while attempting to start over.
Russell is a good baseball guy and a nice man, but the Pirates need a manager who is a leader. While the sabermetric belief that a manager makes little difference to a team's record is generally correct, Russell was the most laid-back skipper in the major leagues in recent memory. He rarely emerged from the dugout to argue a call and almost never criticized a player in public. The players took their cue from their manager and played with little energy.
The Pirates need someone who can run a tighter ship and who also has credibility. They have interviewed former Indians manager Eric Wedge and former Marlins and Diamondbacks third-base coach Bo Porter so far. Juan Samuel, who spent part of this season as the Orioles' interim manager between Dave Trembley being fired and Buck Showalter being hired, is also expected to be interviewed along with Cardinals third-base coach Jose Oquendo.
The logical pick is Wedge, who has name recognition and cache after being named American League Manager of the Year in 2007. Wedge also has intensity and a working knowledge of sabermetrics, which play an important part in the Pirates' evaluation of players and game planning. I would act quickly, though, because Wedge is a hot candidate, with the Cubs and Blue Jays also having interviewed him.
Rebuilding the roster, though, is a balancing act. The Pirates aren't ready to win in 2011 as they amazingly outperformed their Pythagenport record by four victories during a 105-loss season. Yet the Pirates have taken their share of heat in the media and from their fans for being cheap since the August report by the Associated Press that revealed the franchise had made a profit of more than $25 million combined in the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
The Pirates have spent $30.6 million on signing bonuses in the last three amateur drafts and have greatly increased their scouting and player development budgets. Yet, they need to put on the public face that they are trying to get better at the major league level and ownership is willing to do that by giving the OK to a "substantial" increase over this year's $44 million player payroll.
While the numbers show that the Pirates have many needs, they do have four young building blocks in the lineup in second baseman Neil Walker, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, left fielder Jose Tabata, and center fielder Andrew McCutchen. None are eligible for arbitration and all are under control through the 2015 season. Four players aren’t enough to make up a productive lineup, but they do help define that adding pitching is the offseason's key priority.
Just five pitchers are assured of Opening Day roster spots in 2011, left-hander starter Paul Maholm, right-handed starters James McDonald and Ross Ohlendorf, and right-handed relievers Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek.
Left-handed starter Zach Duke would seemingly fit one of two open rotation spots, as he has pitched at least 185 innings in three of his five full major league seasons. However, he is arbitration-eligible for a third year, made $4.4 million this year and was below replacement level with -0.2 SNLVAR in 29 starts. Even if he would agree to take the maximum 20 percent pay cut—which he likely wouldn't—it would be hard to justify spending $3.6 million on him. Thus, Duke has to be non-tendered.
The Pirates had hoped prospect Brad Lincoln would be part of the 2011 rotation. He might be, but he has much proving left to do after having -0.6 SNLVAR in his first nine major league starts this season. He cannot be counted on for next season.
Ideally, the Pirates would trade switch-hitting catcher/first baseman/right fielder Ryan Doumit for a starting pitcher and add another starter through free agency. More than anything, the Pirates need at least one starter who can eat some innings to keep the bullpen from being completely burned out.
Two interesting names on the market are right-handers Jake Westbrook and Kevin Millwood, whose price tags may be within reason for a small-market club like the Pirates. Westbrook pitched a combined 202
Even if the Pirates would sign one of those two and successfully traded Doumit for a second starting pitcher, they would need rotation depth. An interesting idea would be to pursue right-hander Jeremy Bonderman, who could also be an economical free agent. Bonderman had just 0.9 SNLVAR this season for the Tigers. On the plus side, though, he did pitch 171 innings and will only be 28 next season.
The bullpen also needs some help beyond Hanrahan and Meek. With a rotation as shaky as the Pirates', they could use two long relievers and right-hander Jeff Karstens would be a good internal option for one of the spots if, for a second consecutive winter, he would be willing to be non-tendered to avoid arbitration then sign a minor league contract. Otherwise, it would be time to cut ties. Right-hander Daniel McCutchen, who pitched much better after being removed from the rotation to the bullpen, could also be a long-man answer.
The Pirates have a few other interesting internal options as Chris Resop pitched reasonably well after being claimed off waivers from the Braves in August and right-hander Jose Ascanio (shoulder) and Kevin Hart (elbow) will trying to bounce after both missed the season while recovering from surgeries.
Right-hander Chan Ho Park, the Pirates' only free agent, wants to return but the only way it would make sense to re-sign him would be on a non-guaranteed contract. It would be doubtful he would go for that kind of deal. Left-hander Wil Ledezma's peripherals were not good enough to risk going to an arbitration hearing, so he gets non-tendered.
The Pirates have been able to build good bullpens on the cheap by signing lower-tiered players and minor league free agents to fill in holes. That's the route to go again, with Baseball Prospectus alumnus Dan Fox using his statistical savvy to root out some bargains.
The lineup will have to go relatively untouched with so much money going toward propping up the pitching, which means Chris Snyder will remain the catcher since he is under contract and Ronny Cedeno stays at shortstop since he is under team control as an arbitration-eligible player. However, a right-handed hitter is needed to platoon with Garrett Jones, and there is flexibility involved as Jones can play both first base and right field. Since Jayson Werth isn't likely to come to Pittsburgh and be a platoon player for about 1/40 of what he will make as a free agent, the plan here would be the trade for a righty bat.
If Doumit is not traded then he becomes the default option at first base or right field. If he is traded and a first baseman is acquired, then outfielder Lastings Milledge, eligible for arbitration to the first time, is tendered, and gets one last chance to prove he be an everyday player in the major leagues. If not, he joins the non-tendered list along with a couple of other former prospects, infielder Andy LaRoche and infielder/outfielder Delwyn Young.
However, the biggest thing necessary is continued patience, which isn't easy when you've lost for a generation and spent the just-concluded season being the NL's punching bag. However, the Pirates have no choice but to let the youngsters continue to develop, which means waiting for prospects like left-hander Rudy Owens and catcher Tony Sanchez to arrive in 2012, then hope that high school right-handers Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie, the club's top two draft picks this year, can zoom through the minors and be ready to help in 2013.
When you're the Pirates' GM, you have no choice but to keep an eye on the future, just as much as on the present.