In 2012, the Pirates almost broke their generation-long losing streak and made a run at a playoff spot for the first time since 1992. Then, they fell apart in an epic collapse that wasted Andrew McCutchen's MVP-level performance in 2012 and squandered a ton of goodwill from the fans. Pirate fans were left watching fans go nuts for the playoffs in Baltimore and Washington and Oakland, only able to say, "That could've been us!" So what can the Pirates do this winter to make 2013 different?
At the end of 2012, Clint Hurdle identified a few players as having spots for 2013 locked down. Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Garrett Jones, Mike McKenry, and Clint Barmes all made the list. If we assume that James McDonald, AJ Burnett, and Jeff Karstens all have rotation spots on lock, too, that leaves us with the following needs: corner outfield/first base (Jones will play either right field or first base, depending on how everything shakes down), a catcher to pair with McKenry, starting pitching, and a shortstop because seriously, Clint Barmes doesn't hack it even if Hurdle says he does.
The Pirates do have some internal options here. Left field will almost certainly be filled by Starling Marte, who shot up the prospect charts over the last two years and made a debut with the Pirates last year that was both tantalizing and frustrating. He's certainly got all of the raw tools to cover a ton of space in the outfield next to McCutchen and to bat in the top part of a big league batting order, though, and left field is his job to lose. The same is probably true of Travis Snider in right, though his performance with the Pirates after being acquired at the trade deadline was spotty and marred by a hamstring injury. The Pirates certainly could try to bring in some competition for him. They have some internal options for the starting rotation as well, though those options are less attractive. Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson, and Kyle McPherson have all had decent results in the upper minors, though none of them are elite prospects and they all project to be back-end rotation or bullpen guys at best. Gerrit Cole is an elite prospect and he'll be a Pirate at some point in 2013, though probably not until sometime close to the beginning of the summer. That means that if the Pirates are going to aggressively pursue anything this winter, I'd have to guess it'll be starting pitching. If they do so on the free agent market, it'll probably a signing similar to their Erik Bedard signing last year (though hopefully, for the Pirates, with better results). That probably means a pitcher with talent that's struggled lately. Francisco Liriano seems like someone that the Pirates would be interested in, and given Neal Huntington's former association with the Indians, taking a flier on Roberto Hernandez (nee Fausto Carmona) seems like something the Pirates would do. They did show some interest in Edwin Jackson last year and reportedly offered him about $30 million over three years; they'll probably make a similar offer to him again this year and probably be spurned again.
I think it's a pretty safe bet that Joel Hanrahan will be shipped elsewhere this winter. He's due somewhere in the neighborhood of $7 million through arbitration and between Jason Grilli (who will probably cost about half that in arbitration), Bryan Morris, Duke Welker, and Victor Black, the Pirates have quite a few talented right-handed relief options that can miss bats. Since Hanrahan is a proven closer, he'll certain garner some decent interest this winter, even though he'll be a free agent. That makes him one of the Pirates' more valuable trade chips this winter. If I were the Pirates, I'd also be thinking about shopping Garrett Jones, who's coming off of a career-high 27 homer season but who's probably a long shot to replicate that kind of production in any sort of reliable fashion. I don't really see any indications the team is interested in doing this, though, especially since Clint Hurdle already named Jones one of his guys that's in place for next year.
This is a little bit tougher to figure out for now, since I'm guessing the Pirates will be looking to make trades similar to the AJ Burnett trade of last winter. In short, the formula there is, "Find a veteran who may have more left in the tank than performance indicates, take them away from the team that has enough money that they can sign a replacement and not have to find out." These players don't really reveal themselves until free agency shakes out for large-market clubs, though, so it's hard to say who will be available for that sort of move in February. As it relates to Hanrahan, Huntington will probably gun for a return similar to what Boston was handing out for relievers last winter (they dealt Jed Lowrie and Josh Reddick for Mark Melancon and Andrew Bailey). That means a young player that has some serious potential and is close to being big league ready. Most likely, the Pirates will be eyeing up a shortstop, corner player, or starting pitcher. That's probably a tall order to get for just one year of a closer in return, but it's probably where the Pirates will start from, at least.