Six months of great baseball added up to 98 wins for the Pittsburgh Pirates this past season but just a third straight second-place finish in the NL Central and a second postseason cut short by another one-and-done wild-card game loss to an opposing ace.
What do they need? Right now, the biggest need is a starter to slot in behind Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano to replace the retired A.J. Burnett and free agent J.A. Happ. But there's also a big-picture question about goals and means to address: Will the frustration of failing to break through with the Chicago Cubs on the rise and the St. Louis Cardinals not going anywhere inspire a serious shake-up to win it all in any of the last three years they're built around star center fielder Andrew McCutchen? Or will GM Neal Huntington rely on the talent and depth he's accumulated and just tweak a strong roster with more talent on the way? Between a stack of arbitration cases and the Nutting family's historical reluctance to spend big-time money, his options to really mix things up might be limited.
Guy on the rise: Jung Ho Kang's .913 OPS in the second half of the season made it clear his is the impact bat in the lineup beyond McCutchen's, making his injury on Chris Coghlan's takeout slide in September -- costing Kang his October availability -- that much more devastating. Kang may not be ready until mid-May, but whether he's getting his reps at short or third in 2016, the Bucs need his thunder in the everyday lineup.
Prospects to anticipate: The Pirates have more talent on tap and can look forward to integrating more top prospects into a winning program. Switch-hitting first baseman Josh Bell may not be a big-time power threat yet, but his patience and plate coverage versus right-handed pitching (good for a .920 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A) will get him into the big league lineup soon. Towering righty Tyler Glasnow has a plus fastball/curve combo that should put him in the rotation mix at some point in 2016, but the Pirates can also look forward to seeing if Jameson Taillon will finally be healthy enough to contend for a rotation slot after missing the past two seasons with Tommy John surgery and a hernia.
Winter action plan: If the Nuttings provide the cash, the Pirates should make a play for one of the many good arms on the market, perhaps someone like John Lackey, Scott Kazmir or Hisashi Iwakuma. Considering the frustration they've had with lefty slugger Pedro Alvarez, they may want to shop him now in his last season before free agency to make room for Bell or to make room for a bid on a free agent like Daniel Murphy, a better fit as a first baseman than at second.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.