The Pittsburgh Pirates are coming off their best season since 1991 with 98 wins and a win percentage of .605. Out of their last three playoff runs, the 2015 team was probably their best team from top to bottom. This was the season to take the division, and this was the season to make a deep playoff run. When the Cardinals lost 8 of 10 with one week left to play, it was up to the Pirates to take the division, and that unfortunetly just didn’t happen. So here we are on the eve of MLB free agency and the Pirates have a TON of question marks. How can the Bucs finally make a deep playoff run? What do you do with Alvarez, Walker, and Happ? How do you replace AJ Burnett? Well lets talk about it.
Pedro Alvarez. Big Old El Toro banked a hefty $5.75 million dollar salary last season. What did he produce for the Pirates? Offensively, he had 27 home runs, 77 RBI, and a .243/.318/.469 slash line in just 491 plate appearances. The 27 bombs was good for 10th and the 77 RBI was good for 15th among all MLB first baseman. Defensively, he had a .978 field percentage which is not ideal for a first baseman, but it was his first season at the opposite corner. The golden question is should the Pirates bring him back? Only if the price is right. If the Pirates can go sign him for no more than 4 or 5 million per year without having to go to arbitration then I would be all for it. Odds of that happening are highly unlikely as he is projected nearly 8 mill next year. I know, you all are thinking I’m crazy, but when we need Alvarez the most, he produces. In just 23 plate appearances in the post-season, he hits .267 with 3 home runs and 7 RBI. Also, we can’t afford anyone else. Realistically the only player that the Bucs might be able to afford that can possibly make a significant difference is Chris Davis and that is a stretch…a long stretch AND his production isn’t guaranteed after a disappointing 2014 campaign, but a monster 2015 season. He made $12 mil last year, and that is a huge difference compared to Pedro’s salary. Sign Pedro and let Josh Bell, the highly regarded prospect, develop his defensive skills at the position. If he can develop his defense in AAA, then bring him up in July and see how he can adjust to the show. Pedro is not our long term answer, but he is the best option available.
Neil Walker. Bring Neil Walker back, because he is underrated, and he produces more than he is given credit for. You heard me right, UNDERRATED. The man is a career .272 hitter with 70 plus RBI the past two seasons. Once again, if the price tag is too high then we must part ways. He is likely to get 10 or 11 mil, but he is a solid player and worth the money. I think most people will agree that if Neil Walker can come back at a decent price then that is what needs to happen.
J.A. Happ. Hm, I guess I’ll keep it going here. Bring J.A. Happ back. When the Bucs originally acquired Happ I thought, “This guy is going to be the next Wandy Rodriguez”. I can admit when I am wrong, and boy was I wrong. Happ was truly one of the main reasons we were able to get that first wild card spot. He was dialed in from his opening pitch as a Pirate and he continued that route the whole season. Happ posted a stellar 1.85 ERA with a 7-2 record. Contrary to popular belief, he is not a one year wonder. Ray Searage, the Pirates pitching coach, knows how to help Happ, and he helped turned Happ’s career around. They also love working together. They both bring out the best in each other, and Happ will continue to perform as long as he is in a Pirates uniform with Ray Searage as his guy. The Pirates NEED to sign Happ. With AJ Burnett living it up in retirement, we will lose two starters, and a total of 37 starts if Happ were to leave, which means Happ is a must sign.
Options to replace Burnett? Sign one more starter that can get us 25 to 30 starts and low to mid teens wins, and an NL Central Crown and possibly an NL Pennant is in our sights. Viable options could be Mat Latos, Jeff Samardzija, or even as a stretch Doug Fister. None of these guys had the 2015 seasons they wanted to have, but they can likely turn it around in a Pirates uniform with the team behind them and Ray Searage teaching them. A stretch would be names like Yovani Gallardo, David Price and Jordan Zimmermann. Unfortunely, the Pirates just do not have the cash to afford a guy like Zach Greinke or Tim Lincecum. Whoever the Pirates are looking at, they NEED to find someone to replace Batman, and they need to do it in free-agency.
When it comes to the bullpen, we all know the term, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The Shark Tank is definitely not broken. Bring back Mark Melancon, Antonio Bastardo, Joakim Soria, and even Joe Blanton for one more year. The Pirates need these guys on the bump in PNC Park if they have any shot in 2016.
If any of you are thinking that they can’t afford to bring everyone back AND sign a few free agents that are vital to a World Series run, well, unfortunately you are somewhat correct. If we being back the essential arbitration guys, and have some guys re-sign, the Pirates payroll will surpass $100 million. That would be a franchise record. This means that the Bucs can likely afford only one decent free agent.
My high school baseball coach always told us, “the time is now”. Well, Pittsburgh Pirates, the time is now. I understand making the playoffs is great for an organization that didn’t see a winning season for 20 straight seasons, but after seeing the potential this team has, and the experience in the post-season that this team has, the time is now. With Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Neil Walker in their prime, Gregory Polanco, Jung Ho Kang, Josh Harrison, and Gerrit Cole about to hit their prime, the time is NOW. Bring back as much of the 2015 core as possible, and attempt at signing a starting pitcher and maybe another first baseman. Realistically, the big moves are going to have to come as trades mid-way through next season. The time is now for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but don’t expect any huge splashes in the free agent pool.
Hunter Stiehler: The Burgh Blog writer
For Pirates updates follow me on Twitter @hunter_stiehler and @TheBurghBlog