Neil Walker (Getty Images)
Neal Huntington didn’t have very much time to mourn the end of the Pirates’ season in the National League wild card game.
The Prates lost to the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday night, their postseason run lasting one night following a regular season in which they went 98-64 for the second-best record in the major leagues.
By Thursday, Huntington was already getting started on what it likely to be the busiest offseason of his eight-year tenure as general manager as the Pirates have eight players who can become free agents in November and 12 more who will be eligible for salary arbitration.
Two of the free agents have announced their retirement --- right-hander A.J. Burnett and third baseman Aramis Ramirez --- and first baseman Corey Hart says he is also leaning strongly in that direction.
Huntington says the Pirates have at least some interest in retaining the other five --- left-handed starter A.J. Happ, left-handed reliever Antonio Bastardo, right-handed relievers Joe Blanton and Joakim Soria and utility player Sean Rodriguez.
Happ is at that top of that list after going 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA in 11 starts after being acquired July 31 from the Seattle Mariners in a trade, especially with the need for a starting pitcher following Burnett’s retirement.
They would like to re-sign Happ and also add another free agent starter on a buy-low contract. Right-handers Doug Fister and Mat Latos will be two of their targets as both look to rebuild their value after subpar seasons.
Fister, 31, was 5-7 with a 4.19 ERA in 25 games, including 15 starts, for the Washington Nationals this year. Latos, 27, was a combined 4-10 with a 4.95 ERA in 24 games, including 21 starts, for the Miami Marlins, Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Angels.
Bastardo was a solid second left-hander in the bullpen behind Tony Watson, going 4-1 with a 2.98 ERA in 66 games while Blanton was 5-0 with a 1.57 ERA in 21 games after being acquired July 30 from the Kansas City Royals in a cash transaction. Both should be within the Pirates’ budget.
Soria, though, is looking for an opportunity to close after converting 23 of 26 saves this season for the Detroit Tigers before being traded to the Pirates on July 30. In 29 games with the Pirates, Soria was 0-0 with one save and a 2.03 ERA.
The Pirates value Rodriguez for his versatility and defense, even starting him at first base in the wild card game because of his glove. He hit .246 with four home runs in 139 games.
The three biggest arbitration cases involve closer Mark Melancon, second baseman Neil Walker and first baseman Pedro Alvarez. The thrifty Pirates may have a hard time keeping all three players as Melancon and Walker are likely to gain salaries of $10 million or more and Alvarez should reach $8 million.
Melancon set a club record with 51 saves in 53 opportunities while going 3-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 78 games. Huntington has been adept at building bullpens on the cheap over the years and may not want to pay an eight-figure salary to a closer.
Walker hit .269 with 16 home runs in 151 games and is a steady presence both on and off the field. However, the Pirates also have infield options as they can play Jung Ho Kang at third base and move Josh Harrison to second to take Walker’s place.
Alvarez led the team with 27 home runs but also topped all major league first basemen with 23 errors while hitting .243 in 150 games. The Pirates have a veteran first baseman under contract for next season in Michael Morse, which would seemingly make Alvarez expendable.
The rest of the arbitration-eligible players will still have affordable salaries --- Watson, left-handed starter Jeff Locke, right-handed swingman Vance Worley, right-handed reliever Jared Hughes, catchers Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart, first baseman Travis Ishikawa, shortstop Jordy Mercer and outfielder Travis Snider.
Yet the only locks to return among that group are Watson, Hughes, Cervelli and Mercer.