For a long time, it was easy to know what the Pirates' strategy should be for every off-season: don't sign old guys that will block young guys, try to find bargains to plug the remaining holes, and don't worry about the next season's win total because 1.) the fans were already worn down and apathetic from so many years of losing and probably wouldn't get worse and 2.) more losses means a better draft pick anyway. It's been years since the Pirates have had interested fans and years since they've had any plan that's anywhere near coming close to fruition, so basically every year has been a "punt the wins and observe what we have" year. That's how it should be for a team in the situation the Pirates have been in for so long.
The Pirates aren't in that situation anymore. Not really. They're not quite ready to contend in 2012, but they have players in place in Pittsburgh and they have good prospects in the minors and even though it's not exactly clear how the puzzle pieces fit together, what is clear is that the time is coming that the front office will have to try and assemble them anyway. They had a good run in 2011 and they got the fans really interested and attendance went up and for a month, you'd have never known that the Pirates couldn't even draw 20,000 fans a game just two years ago.
So here's my question: what do you do now if you're the front office? There's nothing the Pirates can do this winter to ensure they'll be in contention next year. They might be able to do what they did last year and turn in a great defensive performance that helps a shaky pitching staff and if Pedro Alvarez shows up and Jose Tabata stays healthy and Alex Presley is for real, maybe they make a run in a weak division. It'd be possible, but it's not really all that likely.
That can't happen without Ryan Doumit, though. And it can't happen without Paul Maholm, either. I understand why the Pirates really don't want to pick up the options on these guys, but the reality is that they had a very shaky offense in 2011 and they're going to let one of their more productive hitters walk away. That they had a very shaky rotation in 2011 and they're going to let one of the more consistent starters walk away. They can't really replace either of these guys on the open market and Neal Huntington knows it.
The offseason is young and so there's plenty of time for something positive to happen, but the Pirates as constructed right now (and without anticipating breakouts for a guy like Pedro Alvarez) are much closer to a 100-loss team than a contending team. That's a scary thing for two reasons. One is that if the Pirates trot out a $45 million payroll and lose 95 games or more in 2012, they're going to squander pretty much every bit of the goodwill that they earned in 2011. They're never going to have a summer where the NFL is completely off the map again, and if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can stay healthy, the number of years in which the Penguins are eliminated from the playoffs before May even starts will be few and far between. Would the fans come back if the team makes a run in 2013 after a 100-loss season in 2012? Probably, but honestly I'd rather not find out.
The other thing to worry about is this: the clock is ticking. Andrew McCutchen is probably going to be a free agent after the 2015 season. Every year between now and then that the Pirates completely punt on is officially a wasted season. I'm not saying they should go out and give Derrek Lee $12 million and sign Wilson Betemit to play third base and trade Pedro Alvarez for Bobby Hill, but they at least need to be in a place where there's a chance for something good to happen. I don't see it with the team as constructed. I hope I'm wrong, of course, and there's still an entire off-season ahead of us, but I'm not terribly encouraged by the way things have started.
NH should check the FA list and the ML rosters for the best sibermetrics (Derrick Lee and Ryan Doumit are the only Pirates on the lists) and make a concerted effort to sign some players who know the strike zone, walk with frequency, and don't strike out often. Trade anyone who is not batting his weight plus age and don't and ask BN for some more money to make this team at least respectable.
Win baseball games? Some questions should have easy answers.
My other response would be that the auditions are largely over, or should be - there isn't anyone in the high minors that the Pirates need to find out about and the next "wave" of prospects has only just begun to matriculate through the system. The "core" of the team is in place, for better or worse, so build around that or blow it up.
Pat, when you say that "aren't in that situation. Not really", you still have to consider the fact this club lost 90 games last year, and did so on merit. They were closer to being a 100-loss club than a contender last year, their Prague Spring notwithstanding. The exciting prospects in the system--the Martes, Taillons, and Coles--are not likely to be ready next year. I understand your reasoning in terms of how the fanbase views the club, and I understand how narrow the Pirates window is with the current core intact--but the economics of MLB ensures teams like the Pirates will always have very narrow time frames that they can be contenders, and the Pirates have to circle a season, maybe two, and decide those are the years that they are going to go for broke, and I just don't see 2012 as that season. The Pirates need to be careful, and stay the course and not do anything to hamstring themselves in terms of payroll (and I understand you're not advocating that) to placate the .500 Or Die segment of the fanbase.