By Joe Starkey
Looks from here like the Pirates should be set at seven positions next season. Not just set but potentially stacked.
The positions are left field (Starling Marte), center field (Andrew McCutchen), right field (Gregory Polanco), first base (Pedro Alvarez), second base (Neil Walker), shortstop (Jordy Mercer) and third base (Josh Harrison).
Nothing is guaranteed, obviously, but it's hard to imagine many teams showing up to spring training better fortified at those positions.
Polanco should be given every opportunity to realize his immense potential. Alvarez, in the worst season imaginable, still managed 18 home runs and finished second on the team (behind McCutchen) in at-bats per home run. He has 84 home runs over the past three seasons. Much as some want him gone, you don't dismiss power like that. A fresh start at first could be just what the man needs.
Harrison and Mercer must prove they can repeat. An approximation would be good enough in Harrison's case. Marte is a rising star. McCutchen is the best player in the National League. Walker brought his game to a new level.
That is a group of seven to envy, a group that could inflict some serious damage on the rest of the National League.
Here's the problem: Two other positions carry extra weight and often cost extra money. Lots of it.
Those would be catching and starting pitching.
Those are the areas the Pirates must target, and they won't be alone. Everybody wants pitching. Many need catching.
We've already witnessed the transformative impact a high-quality catcher can provide. Credit the Pirates for identifying a need and signing Russell Martin to a competitive free agent deal two years ago. He was the fifth-highest paid catcher in baseball this season.
Getting Martin was akin to the Detroit Tigers signing Pudge Rodriguez to a $40 million deal 10 years ago. In both cases, it changed everything.
It's hard to win big without a superior catcher. The Boston Red Sox managed to do so last season. The Pirates might be in such a position next season, although they are making the kind of noise rarely heard in these parts when it comes to a pending free agent.
Team owner Bob Nutting echoed general manager Neal Huntington on Wednesday when he said the Pirates would “stretch” financially in an effort to keep Martin.
What does that mean?
Well, if it doesn't mean three years and at least $45 million, then it's just talk. And unless Martin is willing to accept a discount, even that kind of deal likely won't be enough. The catching market is pathetic. Martin is filet mignon among a dozen burned hamburgers.
All it will take is one well-fortified franchise — like the Los Angeles Dodgers and their multibillion-dollar local TV deal — to outbid the Pirates. An extra $20 million or an extra few years is nothing to the Dodgers. It's franchise-changing to the Pirates.
If Martin turns down a fair offer from the Pirates and leaves, there will be nobody to blame, other than maybe Major League Baseball's still-inequitable financial system, which fails to adequately distribute massive resources such as local TV money.
If you're the Pirates, you cannot give a 32-year-old catcher (Martin turns 32 in February) more than three years, and you probably cannot go higher than $45 million-$50 million.
So what then?
Rising prospect Elias Diaz isn't yet ready, and 2009 first-round pick Tony Sanchez shows scant signs of ever being ready. So the Pirates would have to get resourceful. Luckily, Huntington has proven to be the resourceful type.
With no Martin, the club would also be advised to target at least one bona fide starting pitcher to go with whatever reclamation projects make their way into the system.
Clearly, if the Pirates are in position to go “way beyond” with Martin, they have some money to spend. Starting pitching would be the place. After Gerrit Cole, there are question marks. Young talent is on the way, but it's either rehabbing from injury (Jameson Taillon) or not quite ripe.
The Pirates would be wise to target two of their own in Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez. Failing to re-sign either, they should be in position for a modest spree. They don't shop in places where Max Scherzers are sold, but the next level down shouldn't be out of their range. Something like what the A's did last winter with Scott Kazmir (two years, $22 million) sounds about right.
Maybe the Pirates will surprise us and retain Martin. Doing so would allow them to save money in their ongoing pitcher-rehab program. Martin is an integral part of that.
If not, life goes on. The Pirates would have money to spend, some obvious places to spend it, and a talented core to build around.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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