PITTSBURGH – Neil Walker is hardly bothered the Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t been exactly been lighting up the rumor mill over the last few months. If anything, the second baseman sees it as a sign of just how far the club has come.
“The good thing about this offseason is that we weren’t looking to upgrade at six, seven different spots as we have,” Walker said Friday. “We knew we were going to get a couple arms from a starter standpoint, knew we were looking for a catcher to go with (Mike McKenry). I think we upgraded very well. You’ve got to like what you’re looking at on paper.”
The Pirates landed three-time All-Star catcher Russell Martin and re-signed veteran setup man Jason Grilli. Other than that, the moves have been minor. Walker doesn’t view that as an issue.
“We’re going to roll with what we’ve got and we’re excited about the additions we’ve made,” Walker said.
Besides, it’s unlikely Pittsburgh is done. Though general manager Neal Huntington is happy with the moves the team has made he’s expects to stay busy before the first full squad workout in Bradenton, Fla., on Feb. 15.
“We still have some irons in the fire, and at the same time we feel good about what we are,” Huntington said.
The biggest item at the top of Huntington’s offseason list was finding a catcher. Veteran Rod Barajas did wonders with the pitching staff but struggled at the plate and behind it, throwing out just 6 percent (6 of 101) base runners attempting to steal and hitting just .206 with 11 home runs and 31 RBI in 106 games.
The 29-year-old Martin is still in his prime, though his batting average dipped to a career-low .211 last season with the New York Yankees. The two-year deal also gives Martin a little time to settle in and Huntington is confident the hitting woes that plagued Martin are a thing of the past.
“He’s a better hitter than that,” Huntington said. “He’s going to grind out at bats, which is going to help us get into opponent’s bullpens. He’s an athlete on the bases. We feel like he’s a significant upgrade offensively and defensively.”
Grilli’s return also gives the back end of the bullpen some stability and flexibility. The 36-year-old has been one of the better late-inning relievers in the league since signing with Pittsburgh in July, 2011. While he’s never been a closer, Grilli could find himself thrust into the role if Pittsburgh move two-time All-Star Joel Hanrahan, who is likely due a hefty raise in arbitration.
Hanrahan is also the team’s most valuable – and tradable – asset, perhaps the biggest chip they have in trying to find some help in the starting rotation. Pittsburgh is set on a top three of A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald but at the moment has youngsters Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson penciled in for the fourth and fifth spots. The Pirates would like to throw an established starter in the mix and hope Charlie Morton recovers from elbow ligament-replacement surgery. Morton is expected to be out until at least June.
The plans, at the moment, do not include rushing 2011 No. 1 draft pick Gerrit Cole to the majors. The right-hander was spectacular at times last season and will get a chance to impress in spring training, but Huntington refuses to put any sort of timetable on when Cole will make it to Pittsburgh.
While finding a new home for Hanrahan could help the Pirates in the long-term, it could also affect clubhouse chemistry. The burly Hanrahan is popular with his teammates, and Pittsburgh’s swoons in 2011 and 2012 came after the team made a handful of moves to try to stay in playoff contention. The moves, however, didn’t pan out and Huntington allows it may disrupted the positive vibes.
“Did we disrupt chemistry?” Huntington said. “Any time you make a move, that’s certainly something you take into consideration.”
The Pirates went 79-83 in 2012, tied for the club’s best record in 20 years. The season, however, wasn’t a steady assault on .500 but a roller coaster ride. Pittsburgh was 16 games over .500 in August before going into freefall. Take the long view and the Pirates were 22 games better in 2012 than they were in 2010, when they had the worst record in baseball.
The short view, however, requires acknowledgment the Pirates stumbled badly when things got tight. Walker – who missed large portions of the final two months with back problems – takes responsibility for the collapse but also insists it is part of the process.
“We all need to be better, we all need to be more prepared but experience is such a huge factor in that,” Walker said. “You have to go through these growing pains. You have to.”