The Pirates will have a major void to fill if Burnett retires or departs as a free agent.
But the Pirates did not wrap up their season before they had ended a 20-year run of consecutive losing seasons, which had begun after their last playoff appearance in 1992. NL MVP Barry Bonds bolted as a free agent after that season and things went downhill from there in Pittsburgh.
While the core of this talented Pirates team isn't going anywhere in the offseason, there are some holes that general manager Neal Huntington is going to have to fill if they're going to stay near the top of a tough division.
Having a strong farm system certainly eases the pressure of Huntington having to do too much in the offseason. But there's no denying that the addition of several veterans through free agency and trades has boosted the Pirates to another level.
Becoming a championship-caliber team, however, might require the acquisition of another impact player. The question is whether Pirates ownership is willing to boost the player payroll by a significant amount and whether the front office would trade one or two of the team's best prospects to make it happen.
Here's everything you'll need to know before Huntington and the front office get started.
After starting the season with a franchise all-time high payroll of $66,805,000, according to Baseball Prospectus, the Bucs head into this offseason with approximately the same amount expected to be paid to just 15 players on their projected roster. Six Pirates account for $38.25 million in salary for next season with nine Pirates eligible for arbitration.
Unless Wandy Rodriguez foolishly declines his $13 million player option for 2014 after missing most of 2013 with an forearm injury (Pittsburgh must pay him $7.5 million while Houston will pay the remainder), the Pirates might not have a lot to work with this winter unless ownership rewards their strong season with a payroll boost.
Despite an exciting season in Pittsburgh, the team's average home attendance jumped only about 2,000 per game, increasing to 28,210 in 2013 compared to 26,148 in 2012. Hosting three playoff games should help, but it's no certainty that the Bucs will be competing for the top players available on the free-agent market.
Three of the Pirates' five impending free agents—John Buck, Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau—weren't even on the team until late August while another, Clint Barmes, had a disappointing two-year run with the team.
Losing veteran starter A.J. Burnett, however, would be a big loss to a team that has won 33 of his 61 starts since he was acquired prior to the 2012 season.
With top prospect Jameson Taillon closing in on the majors and Wandy Rodriguez expected to be fully recovered and ready for the start of spring training, the rotation could be fine. It still has Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke forming a strong front four. It would also allow the Bucs to spend their money elsewhere, like on a much-needed bat in the middle of the order.
If Burnett does return, it could be a rate much lower than his $16.5 million salary in 2013—the Bucs paid $8 million, the Yankees paid $8.5 million. The 36-year-old is contemplating retirement, according to Karen Price of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, but wants to stay in Pittsburgh if he does continue to play.
While Buck and Morneau will likely depart after their short stints in Pittsburgh, Byrd could be on the team's list of targets to fill the spot in right field. The 36-year-old had an .847 OPS with three homers in 30 regular-season games after being acquired, then followed that up with an 8-for-22 performance in the playoffs.
With outfielder Jose Tabata's salary increasing to $3 million in 2014, the Bucs will at least consider allowing him to compete for the starting right fielder's job again.
The 25-year-old Tabata wasn't bad at all this season, posting a .771 OPS with six homers in 106 games. The same goes for first baseman Garrett Jones, who had a .708 OPS with 15 homers and is eligible for arbitration after making $4.5 million this season.
But neither was a lineup regular by season's end, having been replaced by late-season acquisitions Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd, indicating that the Bucs could be looking to upgrade at least one of those two positions again this winter.
Another position that they'll at least look into upgrading is shortstop, although that's no easy task. Jordy Mercer, who took the starting job away from Clint Barmes in mid-June, had a .772 OPS with eight homers in 103 games. Mercer deserves a chance to hold onto the job, but needs to improve defensively.
If A.J. Burnett doesn't return, the Bucs would benefit from bringing in another starting pitcher to hold down the fifth starter's job. General manager Neal Huntington will likely try to find another great value, as he did in signing Francisco Liriano as a free agent in February for $1 million plus incentives in a one-year deal with a club option for 2014, per spotrac.com.
The Bucs received great production from free-agent signees Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano, but they've built their roster mostly with homegrown talent and filled it out through trades.
Don't expect that to change much, although there's at least a chance they could purse an impact free agent if ownership boosts payroll.
Here's a list of potential free-agent targets for the Pirates this offseason:
Jose Dariel Abreu, 1B: The Bucs are one of five teams that appear to be front-runners for the 26-year-old Cuban slugger, according to Ben Badler of Baseball America. If his hitting success translates to the majors, the Pirates could feature quite a power-hitting tandem in the middle of the order with Abreu and Pedro Alvarez.
Stephen Drew, SS: Signing Drew would be pricey, so it might be not worth it unless the Pirates believe he makes them a much better team than they are with Jordy Mercer as their starting shortstop.
Curtis Granderson, OF: If it's a left-handed hitter who can reach the Allegheny River on a regular basis, then Granderson might be the best fit on the free-agent market. The 32-year-old has averaged a homer in every 15.3 at-bats since the 2011 season.
Dan Haren, SP: The second tier of free-agent starters features a long list of veteran pitchers who could fit in the team's plans. None was better than Haren in the second half of this season, though, as he posted a 3.27 ERA with 15 walks and 77 strikeouts in 82.2 innings pitched. His poor first half, however, could drop his price tag into Pittsburgh's range.
The Bucs have the resources to go out and acquire some big-time major league talent, but only if they're willing to trade away their top two prospects, center fielder Gregory Polanco and right-hander Jameson Taillon in a blockbuster deal.
Several smaller trade possibilities could also be on the horizon as the team's overall farm system depth is strong, as well as the big league bullpen.
Here are some potential trade targets.
Edwin Encarnacion, 1B: It will take a lot to pry Encarnacion, who has 78 homers over the past two season, and his team-friendly contract (two years and $19 million remaining with a $10 million club option for 2016) away from Toronto. The Bucs have a lot and should consider it.
Giancarlo Stanton, OF: Polanco and Taillon would be the conversation starter for Stanton (pictured), who Miami insists they aren't trading. If they offer to throw in one of their other elite pitching prospects, Tyler Glasnow or Luis Heredia, they will have the Marlins' full attention.
David Price, SP: See Stanton analysis. Same deal. For two years of a staff ace, it will cost Pittsburgh the farm. But it has to be tempting to head into 2014 with two of the best lefties in baseball leading the way.