Now that the Pittsburgh Pirates have extended general manager Neal Huntington's contract, let the speculation begin about how the fourth-year GM will improve the current club.
To date, Huntington has been creative in assembling a team that has a chance to make a near 20-game improvement from a season ago.
One area he hasn't had much success in is the free agent market. That's not entirely his fault. Major league stars still see Pittsburgh as a place that they don't want to play, and as long as they are sporting 19 consecutive losing seasons it will be tough to change that stereotype.
The plan to date has been to build the club with youth and fill in spots with veteran role players nearing the end of their careers. That's been fine until now. While the Ramon Vazquez's, Lyle Overbay's and Matt Diaz's of the world haven't exactly panned out, they have been low risk, high reward type of signings. They have been cost friendly and most importantly they have stunted the growth of any young players the club intends on building around.
Next year though, more will be expected from Huntington.
Some spots around the diamond will be locked up for 2012 and beyond, but there are some positions that need immediate attention; most notably catcher, shortstop, and first base.
Huntington has little chance to improve greatly on the open market but could have success through offseason deals to possibly nab a shortstop and a catcher. With the amount of prospects the Bucs have in the low minor leagues, Huntington may be able to pull something off.
He does have a chance to improve the team at first base though through free agency.
If you're thinking Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder forget it. After those two sluggers, the crop is very thin for 2012. Yet there is a guy he gets to look at everyday that makes perfect sense for the Bucs to be very aggressive pursuing. That's Derrick Lee.
Sure, Lee is getting up there in age, but he has shown in his limited look in Pittsburgh that there is something left in that bat. He's also still one of the best glove guys in the game.
When healthy with the Bucs, Lee has been nothing short of spectacular. He's done exactly what Huntington hoped he would when he pulled the trigger on a trade deadline deal with the Orioles. It's too bad the impact Lee has made has come when the Bucs fell out of the playoff race, but it's been impressive nonetheless.
In 16-games with the Pirates, Lee has hit .373 with five long balls and 14 RBI. He's been the middle of the order run producer that this team desperately needs.
Lee makes sense for the Bucs in 2012, even if it means overpaying for a one or two-year deal.
For one, he signed with Baltimore in the offseason so it's not guaranteed he finds a big money contract with a contending team.
Also, he could be the veteran leader that this team needs on and off the field.
With a team that doesn't really have power from spots where teams usually have it, signing Lee and possibly an above average hitting shortstop have to be high on the priority list.
The Pirates will have enough young and talented hitters to get on base in 2012. They need someone to drive them in and finish off big innings. Lee could be that guy.
Adding Lee and a possible resurgence from Pedro Alvarez to a lineup that will already include Alex Presley, Jose Tabata, Andrew McCutchen, and Neil Walker then suddenly the Bucs should be able to score some runs.
What other options do they have?
They simply can't go into next season with Garrett Jones as the everyday first baseman. If they do, it's likely we will be having this same conversation going into the 2013 season.
One intriguing option is Matt Hague, who had a very good minor league season. He's got good power, but will have his struggles like every young guy does.
That makes Lee an even better option and one Huntington has to make a big priority. If it means overpaying, then so be it. The facts are if the Pirates are to attract a contributor on the open market, they are going to have to overpay.
The club did the right thing by extending Huntington. Now he will be under the microscope.
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