For Pirates general manager Neal Huntington and the rest of baseball's front offices, today marks the beginning of open season.
As of this morning, free agents can sign with any team, rather than only their previous organization, and teams will start to fill vacancies on their rosters. The Pirates enter this free-agent season with a similar shopping list to a year ago, which includes finding a catcher and starting pitching.
"We were in pretty much the exact same spot a year ago," Huntington said.
The free-agent class the Pirates signed before the 2012 season underperformed. The Pirates released Nate McLouth and Erik Bedard. Rod Barajas hit .206 and threw out 6 percent of baserunners, and though Clint Barmes played above-average defense at shortstop, he struggled at the plate for a good portion of the season. The Pirates declined Barajas' $3.5 million option for 2013.
The options at catcher do not appear enticing. The Pirates likely will not extend their payroll enough to sign Mike Napoli, Russell Martin or A.J. Pierzynski, players they may have trouble luring to Pittsburgh anyway. That leaves them to look at Kelly Shoppach, Gerald Laird, Miguel Olivo, David Ross and players of their ilk. The dearth of good catching options to pair with Michael McKenry might force the Pirates to search for one in a trade.
The Pirates need at least one starting pitcher to supplement their rotation. They have A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez in the top two spots, and while James McDonald likely will return to the rotation, his spot is not guaranteed after his second-half performance in '12. The Pirates will let Kyle McPherson and Jeff Locke battle for a spot in spring training.
Charlie Morton will miss the first portion of the season while rehabilitating from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, and the Pirates might not tender a contract to Jeff Karstens, who made $3.1 million in a '12 season that he missed a good portion of because of two different injuries. Karstens is in his final season of arbitration eligibility.
The Pirates could find themselves with someone such as Joe Saunders, Francisco Liriano or Jeremy Guthrie. Guthrie pitched better after a trade to the Kansas City Royals following a horrible stint with the Colorado Rockies, so the Pirates may be able to sign him for a discount as he looks for a bounce-back year.
"Each negotiation is its own entity," Huntington said in regard to searching for precious commodities such as pitchers and catchers. "Each free-agent season is its own entity. The bottom line is, we're looking to add the best possible piece we can."
The Pirates have options at first base as well as the corner outfield positions, but their inconsistency might force the team to look for an upgrade. Pirates left fielders hit a combined .221 with a .635 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) this season. The Pirates might opt to play Alex Presley, Jose Tabata, Travis Snider and Garrett Jones on the corners and ride the hot bat or hope someone secures the job. If they look externally, Oakland's Jonny Gomes, who hit .262 with 18 home runs after a poor '11, could be a target.
Pirates first basemen had a .693 OPS in '12, a number raised by Jones' .833 OPS. Jones hit .189 against left-handed pitchers, though, so the Pirates could platoon him with Gaby Sanchez if they tender Sanchez, who is eligible for salary arbitration, a contract. Like catcher, there are few attractive options among free-agent first basemen.
The only Pirates free agent the team might want back is Jason Grilli, who at 35 struck out 90 in 582/3 innings as a setup man this season. Kevin Correia and Chad Qualls will leave via free agency and the team released Hisanori Takahashi Monday. Huntington has not ruled out bringing Barajas back, but he likely will leave in free agency.
Bill Brink: email@example.com and Twitter: @BrinkPG.