|Catcher of the future?|
With the Pirates struggles with pitching during their second half collapse this year, it's natural to look to the trade market this offseason for pitching. That said, their aren't too many great candidates like Latos and Gonzalez for the Pirates to go after. Plus, the Pirates will have Burnett, Wandy, and James McDonald back next year. McPherson, Locke, top prospect Gerrit Cole, along with veterans Jeff Karstens, Rick VandenHurk, and Chris Leroux give the Pirates plenty of options for the rotation. Arguably shortstop and catcher are much more glaring holes.
However, if the Pirates do decide to go after pitchers in the offseason, here are a few candidates.
Norris isn't a front of the rotation guy like Latos or Gonzalez and he'll turn 28 in March, so he's not still developing. That said, Norris does have a career xFIP slightly under 4.00 and he's struck out nearly a batter per inning, which is good. If he can improve his groundball rate and walk rate a bit while maintaining that strikeout rate, Norris could be a starter with a ERA and xFIP consistently in the mid 3's. Under team control through 2015, Norris could be a valuable commodity for the Pirates, depending on the price.
As far as price for Norris, the Astros aren't looking to compete in the next few years, so near-ready major league talent might not be needed. A reasonable 1-for-1 exchange might be Nick Kingham for Bud Norris. If the Astros desire quantity over quality, a package of Jason Creasy and Mel Rojas Jr. or Willy Garcia might get it done.
Niese is an owner of a career xFIP of 3.63 in 554.0 innings and he won't turn 26 until next month. He's shown a solid ability to strike out batters and doesn't walk many. He also produces solid groundball rates. Niese has enough upside and youth to become #2 starter and he's signed through 2018 at a reasonable rate.
Niese will cost more than Norris as he's younger, better, and on a more team-friendly contract. It'll probably cost one of the Pirates better prospects plus more. A package of Nick Kingham, Willy Garcia and Jeff Locke might get it done. Josh Bell plus some minor prospects is an intriguing possibility. The Mets might be hesitant to trade Niese, but he's an attractive pitcher with team control the Pirates could look to add.
Other pitchers the Pirates could go after would be Chris Sale and David Price. Both are very good and would require a significant prospect package. In addition, both the Chicago White Sox and Tampa Bay Rays have no reason to rebuild and have little incentive to trade young, quality players like Sale and Price.
Clint Barmes wasn't a very popular player this year, but his defense made him at least a palatable player. Rod Barajas, on the other hand, was just downright awful. He needs to be replaced. Michael McKenry is a solid backup option and might be a legitimate starting option if given enough playing time. Tony Sanchez is close to big-league ready, but extra AAA seasoning wouldn't hurt and there is no guarantee he's a legitimate starting catcher. Therefore, adding catcher depth never hurts.
Enter Hank Conger. Conger was a former top prospect who's been benched in Los Angeles for the past few years due to manager preference. Thus far, he's gotten intermittent playing time at the major league level. This year, at age 24, Conger put up a .295/.347/.473 line in 288 plate appearances, even though he played in an offensive-heightened environment. Conger has talent and has had some production. Hurdle might rather play veterans, but Conger could be had for some low level prospects and offers upside and youth at the catcher position. Maybe a package of Clay Holmes and Mel Rojas Jr. will bring back Conger and hopefully a Pirates mainstay behind the plate for years to come or at least through 2016.
There are obviously other options on who the Pirates could go after. They could break the prospect bank and go after a Justin Upton, Starlin Castro, or even a Giancarlo Stanton. At shortstop, Elvis Andrus is a possibility, but he's only under team control for 2 more years and will become a free agent after the 2014 season. On the other hand, these three players were three that stood out because affordable, pertinent to filling the Pirates holes, and all under team control for several years.