OK, the Bucs finally broke down that September door this year. But being successful doesn't guarantee a continued run; the Pirates have some shoring up to do to keep that competitive window open.
While the attack was sputtering last year, the key to the season was the pitching, and that's where the FO should begin to build depth again. There's a nice core of returning guys in Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton, and a then whole lot of question marks.
The AJ coin flip should be decided soon, and if he returns, Pittsburgh will have have four guns to fire. Wandy has exercised his option, and the question with him is if he can pitch through an injury that seems to be more painfully nagging than structural. Jeff Locke is back, but which version is another question that will need answered.
Behind that, the Pirates have some promising arms, but not guys that are ready for the prime time. Jameson Taillon isn't necessarily on the same track as Cole. JT was drafted as a high school kid and may need some more time to get ready for the show. Kyle McPherson was highly thought of, but he's out until mid-to-late summer after surgery. The other guys are looking at an optimistic 2015 ETA.
Jeanmar Gomez, Stolmy Pimentel and even Justin Wilson will be stretched out for camp and provide a Plan B for the back end. Brandon Cumpton and Kris Johnson had their moments in 2013, but both have numbers that suggest a career from the pen rather than the rotation.
So the first step is to land some starters. They could go the Josh Johnson/Dan Haren route, looking for a sabermetric clone of Liriano, or make some minor deals like the ones that landed them Gomez, Pimentel, Vin Mazzaro, etc. But it wouldn't surprise us if they swung a trade to bring in a proven upper-to-mid level hurler on a 2-3 year stint. With the young guys still a couple of seasons away and AJ, Wandy and Frankie all in their walk years after 2014, it would make sense.
The bullpen isn't a place to get comfortable. Jason Grilli was getting his velocity back late in the season, while Mark the Shark may have to switch up his cutter-heavy approach a bit after the league made a September adjustment. But they have some guys that are under control and have some value on the marketplace, so change will be the constant. The FO has no attachment to relievers, so this would be a good year to get some value from a staff that over-performed in 2013.
The first offensive position to address is first base. Garrett Jones is 32 and played closer to his MLB line than his outlier year of 2012, and is on very thin ice to get an arbitration offer. Gaby's spot is as a platoon guy, and he raked lefties; if he remains, it will be as a platoon guy. We personally would like to see Cory Hart's tires get kicked. James Loney is a nice available piece too, especially with Gaby in tandem. Kendrys Morales is another name that keeps appearing on the radar screen as a Pirate target.
RF would be next, but with Gregory Polanco, followed by a handful of young guys, rising with a bullet, that position isn't as critical long-term. The FA market is thin, and Tom Singer of MLB.com writes "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." That would be a deal that needs serious consideration. And if they decide not to move, a JT/Andrew Lambo pairing could work.
Shortstop is another spot that may be under the glass. If the Pirates sign Clint Barmes again, it will be as a bench guy to back up the middle of the infield. If he doesn't, there are a horde of glove-first infielders available, hopefully a little better with the bat than John McDonald or Brandon Inge.
Our guess is that Jordy Mercer will get his chance, especially now that Stephen Drew has been tendered, pretty much leaving Jhonny Peralta as the man on the market. It's possible they could deal here, too, with guys like Elvis Andrus/Jurickson Profar maybe on the front burner. But with Alen Hansen, who will take a middle infield spot in 2015-16, it's another area where they're not deep but do have a front-liner on the way, and the Bucs may give Mercer and Hansen a year to show what they can do.
They're set at third with Pedro, second with The Kid, catching with Russ Martin and the Starling/Cutch duo in the pasture. But none of those spots can take an injury hit yet; the organizational depth just isn't there.
So they'll look to find an extra outfielder and a corner infielder, both of which could be filled from within or outside the system. And that's not too bad a shopping list, compared to years past. They don't have positional depth built up, but if their core guys can avoid the tub, they could be an improved club in 2014. The advantage is that now Pittsburgh is a more attractive landing spot for FA, and the payroll is expected to rise by $20M, around the $100M mark. Not exactly the Dodgers, but a step in the right direction.