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Pirates strike gold with Marte but rank 27th in payroll. What’s the offseason grade now?

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SOUTH HILLS – So we know how many of you felt about the offseason, but this should warm your heart: Starling Marte and Gregroy Polanco will be together in the Pirates’ outfield through at least 2020 barring a trade or unforeseen unfortunate series of events. That’s a long way away. Oh yeah, the NL MVP is locked up through 2018. The Pirates could have the best outfield in baseball for much of the rest of the decade. I don’t think that’s hyperbole.

Some very significant news this morning as the club and Starling Marte have reached a six-year, $31 million deal that includes at least one club option, according to John Heyman. This means the Pirates buy out Marte’s three arbitration years and at least two years of free agency. The deal starts in 2014. This means the Pirates have a chance to enjoy another-McCutchen like contract, which could provide tens of millions of dollars in surplus value. The Trib’s Rob Biertempfel first reported Marte and the Pirates were talking contract extension.

Now the Pirates’ offseason left something to be desired.

*The hole at first base remains and the choice of Edinson Volquez as a A.J. Burnett replacement did not exactly move the needle in Vegas. Many – ESPN (-14 wins) and Baseball Prospecuts (-16 wins) – are projecting significant regression,

*I’m not sure there were a lot of great fits for the Pirates’ needs this offseason, but regardless the Pirates will open the season with the game’s 27th ranked payroll ($78 million),  according to the AP, which marks a $12 million improvement from last season but stagnant relative growth. Many expected more.

Still, the best thing a small-market team can do beyond drafting and developing well is locking up their own core. We’ve discussed this time and time again in this space. Heck, I’ve been talking about locking up Marte since May 14th. The Pirates locked up a core piece in Marte and a possible No. 3 starter to Charlie Morton to club-friendly deals this offseason.

While we don’t have details on the Marte option year or years yet – reports vary between one or two years – if Marte has some slight regression and settles in as a 3-win player over the next six years, that’s worth $100 million in open-market dollars. So we’re already looking at significant surplus value before adding in the option year or two that is included in the deal.

Now, not every long-term deal works. (See: Tabata, Jose). The key is evaluating your own talent. If a club believes in a young player the club should bet on the player because the reward generally outweigh the risk. Marte has some  holes, but the defenses, speed, competitiveness and burgeoning power are worth betting on, imo.

If you factor in Marte and Morton as part of the offseason grade, the offseason doesn’t look so bad. The long-term outlook looks healthier with a young star now in a cost-controlled, club-friendly deal. But of course Marte and Morton do not mark upgrades for 2014, a season which might mark something an opportunity with Francisco Liriano, Russell Martin, Wandy Rodriguez and Jason Grilli all free agents at the end of the season.

Now, doing something today (2014) vs. tomorrow (2015 and beyond) did not have to mutually exclusive decisions.

The Pirates could have done both.

They could have gone to three years on James Loney. They could have given Burnett a QO. But the Pirates chose to focus on the long-term this offseason and avoid short-term spending. The club did nothing that will hurt them three-plus years down the road, and perhaps little that will help them this season (unless Volquez goes all Liriano on us), but the Pirates accomplished several things that will help them through the end of the decade.

How does that grade?

– TS

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