Huntingon has plenty of work ahead of 2015

Decisions on Martin, Volquez and Liriano will be key to club's offseason

Huntingon has plenty of work ahead of 2015

PITTSBURGH -- Even before the 2014 season officially ended for the Pirates, '15 began for their general manager, Neal Huntington.

The two biggest exit cheers during Wednesday night's National League Wild Card Game were for right-hander Edinson Volquez -- even as he walked off the mound down, 4-0, in the sixth inning -- and for catcher Russell Martin, as he was making the first out in the ninth inning of an 8-0 loss.

That was the PNC Park record crowd's way of telling the Pirates to re-sign the two key players who were set to become free agents.

Those are two of the biggest challenges facing Huntington in his ongoing mission for perennial contention, but hardly the only ones. Besides confronting two other free-agent decisions -- starting pitcher Francisco Liriano and reserve infielder Clint Barmes -- the GM's plate is overrun with 12 arbitration-eligible players, a list already trimmed by the Oct. 25 designations for assignment of relievers Jeanmar Gomez and John Axford.

Some of them are easier calls, in both the definite-keeper (Neil Walker, Josh Harrison, Pedro Alvarez) or non-tender (Brent Morel) columns. Others reside in a gray area.

The toughest assignment is Martin. Not only because the catcher made good on his goal to enhance his market value here during his two-year, $17 million stay -- perhaps beyond what the Pirates can or are willing to pay -- but also because there is no firm contingency plan behind him.

Martin has expressed his fondness for Pittsburgh and for the Pirates, calling the past two seasons the most enjoyable of his career. And it means nothing when the lights dim and the cheers fade. A.J. Burnett went out the door with the same sentiments, and never looked back.

"We would love nothing more than to have Russell Martin in a Pirates uniform for years to come," Huntington said, "and are going to do everything we can to try to keep Russ here. And if we don't have enough, then we'll do our best to find the next Martin."

A Pandora's box is about to pop open, because fans clearly feel they have underwritten checks for Martin, Volquez and Liriano -- the trio earned a combined $21.5 million in 2014 -- with their franchise-record attendance of 2,442,564. Yet that overlooks the fact that, with PNC Park's smaller capacity, the Pirates still only ranked ninth in the National League in attendance.

"[Pirates chairman] Bob [Nutting] has done a great job of putting whatever we make back into the club. The more revenue we generate, the more we can spend," Huntington said, then followed up with the caveat, keeping that attendance in the context of the rest of the league, that "it may not have the impact that everyone thinks it should or wants it to."

Arbitration-eligible: Pitchers Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Mark Melancon and Vance Worley; catcher Chris Stewart; infielders Alvarez, Walker, Harrison, Gaby Sanchez, Ike Davis and Morel; outfielder Travis Snider.

Free agents: Marin, Volquez, Liriano, Barmes

Rotation: It has to be rebuilt. With 55, the Pirates had the fewest wins by starters of any of the 10 postseason teams, so it was already sketchy, and now becomes even more vague. Gerrit Cole is locked in as the ace, with Worley and Jeff Locke behind him. Two projected 2015 starters will still be recovering from injuries (Jameson Taillon, Tommy John; Charlie Morton, sports hernia), and the gloss appears off two other prior probables (Stolmy Pimentel, Gomez).

Bullpen: The Bucs may choose to rebuild. They took the opposite route this season, keeping it intact, and it didn't work out for the best. Melancon, Hughes and the lefties -- Justin Wilson and Watson -- remain the foundation. John Holdzkom will be accommodated; southpaw Bobby LaFromboise will get a long look. The Pirates, as much as they dote on the "big arm," may hunt for or audition a new closer to be able to return Melancon to his superb setup role.

Catcher: A vacuum. The free-agent class is barren, enhancing Martin's value and offering no alternatives. Tony Sanchez appears to have been supplanted as catcher-in-waiting by Elias Diaz, who may not be considered ready. Sanchez and the underrated Stewart could be a half-season bridge to Diaz, a 24-year-old defensive force.

First base: Still a puzzle. The Pirates' concerns here are reflected by the fact they're trying out everyone from top outfield prospect Josh Bell to Alvarez at first base. They like Davis' plate discipline and potential power, but his struggles to hit lefties rules him out as an everyday option. The Bucs have not had a regular first baseman -- one who makes more than 110 starts there -- since Adam LaRoche in 2008.

Second base: In good hands. Walker allayed any offensive concerns by producing from both sides of the plate, and his defense is underrated, mostly due to metrics. Having two more rounds of arbitration will be very costly, so he is a definite candidate for a long-term extension. The Pirates will be looking for reserve depth. They can't go through another year with the likes of Michael Martinez and Jayson Nix.

Shortstop: Solid. With one slow-starting season as the regular under his belt, Jordy Mercer is poised to take his place among the game's elite. By midseason, intriguing prospect Alen Hanson could move in as a versatile utility infielder, and this is his primary position.

Third base: A quandary. Alvarez still envisions himself as a third baseman, reluctantly keeping first base in play as an option. But now there is an All-Star and National League MVP Award candidate in his way -- a guy by name of Harrison. The Pirates would entertain dealing Alvarez, but not at the low point of his market value, where he is now.

Outfield: Set. Don't have any concerns about Gregory Polanco's final two months; the youngster just wore down. He will solidly, often spectacularly, take his place alongside Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte is that Dream Outfield. Snider may have to resume being an excellent, versatile No. 4 man.

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