Huntington faced with many player decisions

Walker, Alvarez in final year of arbitration; Happ could be free-agent target for GM

Huntington faced with many player decisions

PITTSBURGH -- Neal Huntington entered the Pirates' barren clubhouse late Wednesday night, a weak smile piercing his sullen mood.

"We have a lot of work to do this offseason," said the Bucs' general manager. "We just got an earlier start on it than we wanted."

The Pirates' 4-0 loss to the Cubs in the National League Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser indeed dropped the flag on the personnel decisions facing Huntington. And perhaps it also slightly closed the window on the team's prime opportunity to capture its first World Series title since 1979, and the franchise's sixth overall.

Date Result
Oct. 7 CHC 4, PIT 0

Between free agents and arbitration-eligible players, Huntington faces decisions on 17 players -- 68 percent of the 25-man roster that had carried the Bucs into September.

Some of the calls will be easy -- such as offering contracts to such arbitration-eligible players as key relievers Mark Melancon and Tony Watson, shortstop Jordy Mercer and catcher Francisco Cervelli.

Others, however, will be agonizing, none more so than the fates of the right side of the infield: second baseman Neil Walker and first baseman Pedro Alvarez, having the benefits of one more arbitration round after 2015 salaries of $8 million and $5.75 million, respectively.

In a fourth year of arbitration, Super Two player Walker is in line for an eight-figure salary that may be beyond the club's budget. The lens on Alvarez was revealed by his omission from the starting lineup for the year's most important game, the Wild Card showdown.

Pirates turn two

While the Pirates engaged the Reds in the regular season's final series, the thought that he might be playing his final home games in PNC Park constantly crossed the mind of Walker, forever The Pittsburgh Kid.

As Wednesday night's game neared its 27th out, did Walker again find his mind straying?

"I would be lying if I told you no," Walker said. "There's no telling. This is all I know. Tonight is just too fresh, at this point. We'll try to evaluate here as we get out of here and go home and kind of assess the year individually and as a team. But I'm not a free agent, so it isn't like I have the first decision."

The uncertainty of Walker's status is definitely compounded by the injury suffered three weeks ago by Jung Ho Kang, which could keep him unavailable until well into the 2016 season.

Kang is wheeled out to ovation

Back in Spring Training, both manager Clint Hurdle and Huntington had already cited Kang as a "future regular for us," and the Korean infielder's subsequent play only reinforced that agenda. The perception all along, then, has been that the club would clear second base for Josh Harrison and install Kang as the third baseman.

Those plans now are up in the air, depending on Kang's prognosis, which Huntington will follow and update regularly.

Walker obviously has prime trade value, as does Alvarez after a 27-homer season, especially as a designated hitter for an American League club.

Among the free agents, the most difficult and priciest decision will involve left-hander J.A. Happ, who dramatically boosted his value by going 7-2 after the Bucs acquired him from Seattle. Other free agents include relievers Joakim Soria and Antonio Bastardo.

Others in the arbitration dozen are pitchers Jeff Locke, Jared Hughes and Vance Worley; infielder Travis Ishikawa; outfielder Travis Snider; and catcher Chris Stewart.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer and on his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.