Hey, there’s no secret here really, the Pirates need to make changes and we’ve already spent time discussing a situation that will make some of those decisions difficult. So with that knowledge in the back of our heads let’s try to break down the options and see if we can sort out Ben Cherington’s possible path forward.
Before you argue against or for any of these, keep in mind you can fight all you like, but it won’t matter in the end. Once they identify a path, what’s most important is that they don’t approach it half way. So let’s do this, and don’t be shocked if your thought before reading this at least becomes a bit less of a hard stance.
Stand Pat – This one is surely not going to be popular but it bears weight for two reasons. First, they may have little choice if they can’t find reasonable deals, and second they may like some of what they have if healthy. For instance, doing nothing could produce a starting rotation of Taillon, Musgrove, Kuhl, Keller, Williams/Brault/Brubaker, and honestly, if everything works out, which has been a HUGE if, that’s pretty attractive. They’ll also return some decent bullpen options discovered this year or finally healthy and add someone like Blake Cerderlind. My biggest problem with this is more about the offense, you’d have to believe some of the guys who have struggled so mightily in 2020 will fully rebound and make an impact.
This is more likely than most will want to believe, and it’s all about who is an attractive asset in the off season. Bell would get someone interested if only because there is time left to “fix” him before making a decision to sign him, but that comes with a price. People don’t pay top dollar for a car that needs transmission work, and they don’t pay for sluggers who can’t get out of their own way. Maybe you want to move one of the pitchers or all of them outside Keller, every single one of them have questions or shortcomings that have been proven out. I’m all for moving them, but don’t expect miracles. Think of what you would give up if your team needed a pitcher to take the next step and your GM went and got one of the options the Pirates have to offer. How much could your GM give up to facilitate it and have it make sense?
Another angle on this is simple, this roster is chalk full of developing prospects. Now, you can argue about where the ceiling is for most of them, but its fair to say most of them aren’t near it yet. That adds up to a whole bunch of giving up too early on some and getting far too little in return.
The biggest thing against this method, beside returning a team that clearly wasn’t getting it done is the fact they need to make room for change. Evolution doesn’t come until it’s biologically imperative, the same applies to roster construction. If you don’t create need, you’ll never stop having want.
Clean House – Extremely difficult to pull off but let’s not act like the Pirates are the only club to every find themselves in this position. It’s a roster trap, you have players with potential and nobody in AAA really pushing to make change. I like some players in the minors but there aren’t many ready to make an immediate impact.
Now, why is it so difficult? Well it usually comes down to two things, first the Pirates would need to be just as ready to move on as many of the fans. Next, they’d have to be ready to take what they can get rather than hold out for incredible packages for each and every player. And remember in the first section where I said they had a bunch of developing prospects? Well that comes into play here too. The scariest part of this scenario is that the Pirates will still have to field a team and that provides two paths.
The first is what the Marlins have done, they cleared their roster almost entirely then back filled it with relatively inexpensive free agents. Best case scenario, some of these retreads find their stride and lead to more trade capital, worst case they do little more than fill out the team colors as you wait for prospects to develop.
If you do this right, you can often have a near accidental competitive team, most plugged in fans will understand its built on sand but some will think you botched a rebuild.
Let’s be clear, this isn’t a Jarrod Dyson type free agent, this is more along the lines of a Hunter Pence or to be honest a Phillip Evans. Regardless it doesn’t come without risk, if the prospects you’ve acquired don’t pan out and your draft picks follow suit, you can easily get caught with your pants down. Choose the free agents poorly and you get stuck with a whole lot of players that walk for nothing. At some point the youth movement has to come.
Want to try it another way? OK, sell everything you feel is not part of the future and bring up kids ready or not. It honestly only matters if you believed you were moving a winning club. What I mean by that is if this club isn’t going to complete for the playoffs, no harm no foul. Lose 100 games or 120 and it doesn’t matter, if you think that group had a shot to grow together and compete, it’s a much bigger risk.
Augment – This is very not Pirates. I’m just being real with you, and while I leave room for Cherington to be different, it’s not his history. He’s augmented before but only after the team he built had actually won, he added to stay on or near the top, not to get there. I won’t even go into the fact what he added kinda sucked.
I could possibly see this playing out but I don’t get the impression anyone in or around the team is elated with where this group is headed together. The Joe Musgrove to the Blue Jays rumor means very little, but regardless of how close it came or how many other conversations like it occurred, the key fact to take away from that is that Joe Musgrove was very much so on the block, among others like him. That tells you this method is most likely off the table.
Gradual Improvement – This is probably the most likely outcome. There will be a percentage of players on the roster the Pirates want to see a little more of and there are legitimately some prospects that they’d like to see up here. This will lead to some players moving who actually could help this team be better right now. Yes that’s a Joe Musgrove, or an Erik Gonzalez, maybe even a Bell if he ever starts to hit.
Even if this isn’t the method they choose, it’ll be what they sell, both to the league and us. This keeps other GMs from believing they have a super motivated seller and keeps the fans believing they’re making moves to allow younger players an opportunity. Now that part is true, but it won’t show immediate improvement, in fact it won’t fool many, but it only needs to work until you’ve moved your biggest intended targets.
If you’ve managed to secure the wool over the eyes in the first place, it won’t last beyond moving 1 or 2 big pieces. Move Musgrove, no big deal the league can see that as not believing you could retain him long term. Move Musgrove and Bell, ruse over, everyone will know what you’re doing. To be blunt, most GMs already believe this is the case, but you never know until you KNOW, if you catch my drift.
Now, why do I think the Pirates will ultimately go in this direction? It’s a combination of reasons and it all starts with where they were in Huntington’s failed retool. The team is young and the next wave is VERY young. What they need to do is bridge the time and when I talk about the types of free agents they’d need to get in order to clean house, they might just be further ahead to just leave some of their controllable players in place and use them. If anything you’ll see added emphasis on keeping and acquiring more jack of all trades style players like Gonzalez or Tucker.
The only real mistake they could make would be believing this was all a short sample size issue in 2020 or that injury derailed the club so badly they suddenly became one of the worst rosters in baseball. If they believed this, Huntington would still be here. That is the best reason for optimism that Cherington gets it fully and understands this franchise’s place in the food chain.
Another factor in all this is the predicted Free Agent downturn in the market. This could afford teams like Pittsburgh swooping in and finding a deal with a player who typically wouldn’t have considered the Pirates or could have gotten much more in another season.
Lasting change is a whole other issue. You either run a tight ship with perpetual turnover like Tampa, or MLB changes the economic structure of the league. There are 30 teams in this league as we speak, and not a single one doesn’t envy what Tampa is doing, even the beloved Moneyball darling A’s, even the extremely well to do Dodgers would happily not require that payroll.
This off season is going to be one hell of a ride, but that doesn’t mean the Pirates will pick an extreme option.