The Pittsburgh Pirates were a much-improved team in 2012, winning 79 games and competing for a playoff berth for much of the season. That does not imply that this team does not have several clear holes, however.
Thanks to the emergence of players like Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker, more lineup slots are covered than in years' past, which means GM Neal Huntington can focus on addressing those areas where the Pirates are weakest.
It will not be easy for the Bucs to address for all their woes, as the positions where Pittsburgh has struggled the most are the weakest in baseball. The method will vary, too, as high-priced free agents will not always yield the best results for a team with a limited budget like the Pirates.
But the Pirates need to do something to address each of the following needs, whether it's finding an established free agent, picking a few guys off the scrap heap, or turning players loose from Triple-A.
Over the next few weeks, I will provide potential avenues for the Pirates to address each of these holes. The purpose of this article is simply to identify those holes.
It will not be difficult for Pittsburgh to upgrade at catcher, where Rod Barajas and his 361 below replacement-level plate appearances will not be returning next season.
Barajas, the Pirates' primary catcher in 2012, sported an OPS just a hair better than.600 and did not field the position particularly well. The Bucs were terrible at throwing at runners, and despite Barajas' ability to manage the pitching staff, the Pirates simply have to do better at the position.
Michael McKenry actually had a pretty good season, vastly improving his slugging and producing in limited action. That said, the Pirates clearly do not believe he is No. 1 catcher material, otherwise he would have taken over for Barajas down the stretch.
There is a good chance McKenry will be back as the No. 2 catcher, but look for the Pirates to scour the free agent market in search of a new veteran No. 1.
Clint Barmes turned in an excellent year on defense, but he is a liability at the plate and the Bucs can't afford such a large hole in their lineup.
Even at shortstop, where players are expected to think defense first, Barmes' sub-.600 OPS is a huge handicap for the rest of the Pittsburgh offense. Barmes provides a fair amount of value through his ability to field the position, but an average-fielding shortstop with some pop would be an upgrade for the Pirates.
Shortstop is another position where the Pirates should pursue an experienced solution. With Barmes under contract through 2013, the Bucs can afford to take some risks on better-hitting shortstops and keep Barmes as a defensive-minded backup.
Pittsburgh should also aim to develop players like Jordy Mercer or even Brock Holt, as the Pirates haven't developed a shortstop in a while.
The Pirates have an exciting young core in the outfield, with MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen flanked by former top prospects Starling Marte and Travis Snider.
McCutchen will anchor this Pittsburgh team for years to come. But Marte and Snider, while talented, have not yet graduated to the status of "reliable starter." Each has shown tremendous potential, but both are performance and injury risks.
It would be surprising if Marte and Snider were not in the Pirates' Opening Day lineup, but Huntington should have a Plan B in case one of them struggles or gets injured again. Outfield depth is not an expensive commodity, so there is no reason for the Pirates not to add a bat or two and improve the team's depth.
The Pirates' rotation made great strides last season, and A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez will anchor the Bucs' pitching staff in 2013. Jeff Karstens and the enigmatic James McDonald have locked down spots as well, and the fifth spot is slated to go to either Kyle McPherson or Jeff Locke.
Which is to say that, with Gerrit Cole likely on the way by June or July, the Pittsburgh rotation is in pretty good shape. But every team can use more pitching depth, and the Bucs are no exception.
McDonald, who performed like an All-Star during the season's first half but fell apart in August and September, is no sure thing next year. Karstens remains a perennial injury risk, and McPherson and Locke have not been asked to hold down a regular rotation spot yet.
The Pirates would benefit from adding one or two starters to increase their safety net; adding a top-three starter would would be a big boost. Huntington has a good track record with regard to acquiring pitchers, and it wouldn't be a surprise if this is the area where the Bucs make a splash.
Neal Huntington has traditionally done a great job of building the Pirates' bullpen, and that skill will once again be tested this year.
The Pittsburgh bullpen struggled late last year as the Pirates failed to adequately replace Brad Lincoln. Jason Grilli was dominant, but he could command a sizable free-agent contract and it is no certainty that the Bucs will re-sign him.
It is unlikely the Pirates will spend a lot of money to revamp their bullpen. Huntington has done a great job of repeatedly building this unit on the cheap and any large expenditure would likely go toward re-signing Grilli. But the Bucs should be active on the waiver wire as they often are to maintain their bullpen success.