Burnett's status is offseason priority

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A year ago, general manager Neal Huntington and the Pirates identified one major hole to address in free agency, locked in on veteran catcher Russell Martin and aggressively pursued him until he was crouched behind home plate at PNC Park.

This year, a more patient approach will guide the franchise when free agency begins at the conclusion of the World Series, Huntington said in a recent interview.

A winning season, the first playoff berth in 21 years and a foundation in place will do that.

"In the past, we went and got that player who met our needs, but now we can be in a position to be more patient," Huntington said. "Typically, to get a guy early you have to overpay him. There's clubs who have had some success doing that. We're in a good spot in that two years ago we had to get a catcher. Then, we had to get a shortstop [Clint Barmes]. This year we're looking for areas to make us better."

Naturally, Huntington did not tip his hand on specifics, but said the Pirates would like to improve their pitching and offense and could dip into the free-agent market to do so, but with a measured approach.

"Is it a pitcher and a bat? Two bats? A starter, reliever and a bat? A huge bat or multiple pieces?" Huntington said. "We've got to get into the market, see what trade talks are out there and be flexible. We can be patient this offseason."

Four key Pirates are pending free agents -- pitcher A.J. Burnett, right fielder Marlon Byrd, first baseman Justin Morneau and shortstop Clint Barmes.

Completing the puzzle starts with completing the pitching staff, which means determining whether or not Burnett will return for another year or retire.

"If we retain A.J, that will be a significant positive, but also it's going to cost us a good chunk of the available money, and we'll have to react accordingly," Huntington said.

Burnett, who earned $16.5 million this season, said in a recent appearance on 93.7 The Fan, that returning to the Pirates or retiring were his only options.

"Without a doubt, I'd love to be a Pittsburgh Pirate," Burnett said in the radio interview. "Having said that, my decision further is not playing for another team. It's whether or not I'm going to play, period. That decision is going to based on my family."

Burnett, 36, had a 3.30 ERA in 30 starts this season. He struck out 209 batters in 191 innings despite missing a month with a slight tear in his calf. Burnett's five-year, $82.5 million contract paid him $16.5 million in 2013.

"We'd like to have A.J. back," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said. "Everybody has made that clear; we've made it clear to A.J."

Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton will be in the starting rotation next season. Wandy Rodriguez, whom the Pirates expect to exercise a 2014 contract option, also is a candidate, but the lingering flexor strain in his left elbow that kept him out the final four months of the season casts uncertainty over his availability. Jeff Locke also might make the rotation, and top prospect Jameson Taillon likely will debut sometime next summer.

As for position players, Byrd and Morneau, both late-season acquisitions, could help fill two of the biggest holes on offense. But neither one represents a sure thing because they likely will draw significant interest from other clubs.

Byrd, 36, hit .291 with 24 home runs this season for the New York Mets and Pirates. In the two years before that, though, he hit .260 with 10 home runs and a .305 on-base percentage. The Boston Red Sox released him in June 2012 before he was suspended for testing positive for a banned substance. He signed with the Mets as a minor league free agent before this season and made $700,000.

Morneau, 32, played a full season for the first time since 2008 after back, concussion and wrist issues limited his playing time the past four seasons. He had a .323 on-base percentage with 17 home runs with the Minnesota Twins and Pirates in 2013. He made $14 million in 2013 in the final year of a six-year, $80 million contract.

The emergence of shortstop Jordy Mercer will complicate the Pirates' decision on Barmes, 34, whose two-year, $10.5 million contract expired this season. Barmes' .249 on-base percentage and .309 slugging percentage in 2013 made him a liability at the plate, although his defense continued to be strong.

"Of course, I'd like to stay here," Barmes said near the end of the season. "This has been an awesome group of guys. It's been a lot of fun for me."

Mercer, 27, hit .285 with a .336 on-base percentage in 365 plate appearances and his playing time increased as the Pirates sought to improve their offense.

Right-handed pitchers Kyle Farnsworth and Jeff Karstens and catcher John Buck also are free agents. Farnsworth, 37, pitched in nine games late in the season. Buck joined the team in the Byrd trade from the Mets and served primarily as a third catcher, although he did make the playoff roster. Karstens missed the entire season after shoulder surgery.

Jenn Menendez: jmenendez@post-gazette.com and Twitter @JennMenendez. Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.

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