Playing the Odds – Why the Pirates and Other Small Market Teams Usually learn the House Always Wins

Over the last couple days, I’ve been writing about ways the shortened and/or cancelled season may affect the Pirates and effect some decisions they will have to make moving forward.

Today I’d like to talk about the elephant that is always in the room for Pittsburgh, yup, today we’re going to talk about the feasibility of actually building through the draft and creating a window where winning is not only possible but expected.

It’s daunting to say the least. In order for any of this to work there is a series of things that must be done well. Additionally, they have to be done in the right order.

To illustrate this properly, let’s start with what was to be this season’s club, You’re 2020 Pittsburgh Pirates. We are going to break this team apart by doing all the things that a small market club must do to compete in this league. Ben Cherrington has already stated his intention is to build on this team’s core. I can make a case for this being wrong a whole lot more easily than defend it as plausible. For the sake of this examination, let’s go forward with what has been publicly put forward as the intention.

  1. Identify Your Strengths – OK, 2021 is the target, right Ben? Jameson Taillon should be back, immediately you should be filled with questions about how he returns, will he stay healthy, is he ultimately a number one? Assuming you believe he is Jamo has two more years of arbitration, hitting free agency in 2023. If the plan is truly for the Bucs to compete in 2021 and beyond, locking in your ‘ace’ is probably a smart idea.
    It’s a gamble to be sure, but the level of talent he brings to the table is not readily available. He also has had two reconstructive elbow surgeries. All of this adds up to a potential bargain of an extension. Well, we locked that down. Bryan Reynolds is obviously a good one, although we have not seen him do it as a sophomore which can get scary. What about Kevin Newman? Great rookie campaign but the numbers don’t make it seem sustainable. Is he your short stop moving forward or is it Tucker or even Cruz? Someone needs chosen, maybe Newman is your Second baseman that’s fair I suppose. Either way, if you aren’t going to sign Frazier, probably need to move him.
    I personally feel Josh Bell is a must for an extension, especially with the DH most likely coming to the NL. I also see this as wholly unlikely, so trade him, but do realize you are creating a hole, one that the Pittsburgh Pirates have struggled to fill for quite some time.
    I guess you’d have to say Hayes is the future at Third Base. We’ll see, but part of this process is betting on youngsters, Mitch Keller is very much in that class.
  2. Identify Your Weaknesses – Here we go, I’m sure I could write 20 pages and not cover everything people want mentioned but I’ll try it anyhow by going vague. Pitching I mentioned just above is about two deep. I don’t expect Trevor Williams to be here as part of the solution and Joe Musgrove is a swing player. I like him personally as a 3-5 starter but he won’t come free. If the Pirates think he is indeed part of the core, at this point it will take more money to ensure he is here.  There is an overwhelming lack of power on the MLB club and less in the minors than people care to believe. That has to come from somewhere.

Before I continue, let’s just take a little side trip. Money is always going to be an obstacle and it’s not just because Bob is a greedy owner. See in those first two points I already identified roughly 20-25 million additional that would need to be added to ensure we KEEP some players around. Note, we haven’t added a damn thing yet. All we’ve done at this point is try to identify our core, and if Ben is to be believed, we certainly have one here already. So as of right now we look something like this for a core, right or wrong.

SP – Jameson Taillon, Mitch Keller, Joe Musgrove, Maybe Chad Kuhl
RP – Kyle Crick, Edgar Santana, Maybe Blake Cederlind
1B – ?? (Again, I’d keep Bell or at least try but Craig might be the answer)
2B – Kevin Newman
SS – Cruz or Tucker
3B – Hayes, I guess although I question his power output
LF – Bryan Reynolds
CF – ??
RF – Polanco can’t be part of the core unless you extend him beyond 2023, otherwise he is a seat warmer for the heir apparent
C – Jacob Stallings, first, he’s better than many think, and second, who the hell else could it be?

  • Identify Who is the Next Wave – This one is where the gambling really starts, I’ve already taken a flyer on Hayes and Cruz so those two are pretty obvious. I guess Craig is next up for first base. Pitchers we are looking at Brubaker and a plethora of others of which you can expect a roster worth to at least contribute.
    See, this is where this all starts unravelling, the Pirates have a gap the size of the Grand Canyon between the Starters who are here to the starters who can reasonably be expected to be part of the next core as they are in Single A at the moment. Relievers, I actually believe they will be ok there. Middle infield will be pushed for some time and there are some speedy talented outfielders that could shock us all and accelerate their progression.

Again, we have to break out here, see the Pirates have a decent farm system, problem is, most of the really high-end talent is at least two and more likely three years away. That might help the next core but not reinforce this one. Quinn Priester isn’t going to come up in 2022 and be ready to make Joe Musgrove expendable in other words.

  • Draft Well – Easier said than done. Teams not named the Pirates swing and miss on this regularly. Certainly, they can improve over what Neal Huntington did in his time but how much? After all, as easy a target as he makes the man did build a gaping wide-open window from 2013 through 2015.
  • Develop Well – Same exact paragraph as the last. Points four and five are like saying a sniper needs to be able to fire a weapon, of course these things need handled and well.

I haven’t told you anything you didn’t already know in some form or another. I put it all together because even this simplistic representation is nothing compared to the actual luck and timing that has to play out in order to build a winning club. It get’s even harder when you building in preconceived ideas of where you are currently. Get that wrong and you could go off on a detour for years to come.

Say you believe in that rotation up there and invest in it as such, well you better be right because if Jamo has another surgery no amount of comeback videos and no matter how great of an attitude he has will make him what the Pirates need him to be. Same with Keller, to assume he will develop into the front-end pitcher the Pirates need to develop to compete is not easy to accomplish. I mean some guys with stuff like that get shipped off to Tampa for a veteran sometimes.

The bottom line is that building a team like this takes planning, luck, execution and money. People often point out that the Dodgers are mostly built with homegrown talent, and they’re of course correct, but they can afford to make sure Cody Bellinger will be in Blue for as long as they need him to be. Josh Bell is not the player that Cody is to be kind but keeping him is all but a pipe dream for Pittsburgh. Its one thing to say your club is homegrown, its another entirely to try to win with a club that is almost 100% homegrown AND have them all come up together, peak together, stay healthy and have the depth to backfill for those you can’t keep.

The economics of baseball have made that scenario a reality for so many clubs, some more than others. Look at a team like San Diego, here they are spending money to get Hosmer and Machado, they’ve got an exciting young group of players, but what are they missing? Pitching, top end pitching and while they certainly outspend the Pirates by a country mile, they still can’t afford to go get that one thing they need most. They are one of the “have nots” in sheeps clothing if you will.

Colorado has had offensive talent for decades, some of the best in the league, no pitching. While the Dodgers have honestly drafted and developed their fair share of pitching, they have also been capable of bringing in Greinke, or Price, or Hill, or well, anyone they want or think they need.

That’s where the money really does make the playing field more uneven than a basement floor in Western PA. Everyone makes mistakes, some can buy their way out of it to finish painting the picture they want to see. The Pirates are not in that class, and unless things change, that rough road map up there is the future.

Blame Bob, its easy and at least partially true. Bob’s a rich guy, if he wanted to, he could certainly do what San Diego has, but it would not make winning a championship more realistic.

Winning is possible in every market in the league, just know it also takes a good five year stretch of almost no mistakes and a little luck.

In the end, the house usually wins, but the big boys want you to look at the Kansas City Royals holding up that big check, so you keep playing the game.

When the CBA is negotiated this time, maybe its time to even the odds a bit.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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