One Step Forward, Two Steps Back; The Pirates Path is Somehow Very Familiar

The path to improvement is often paved with failed results. But you know that don’t you? You’ve watched that play out countless times over the years. Even when the club pulled everything together in the early to mid 2010’s the improvement was somehow not linear.

Think back, and when you do, think beyond the record. The Pirates had many developed internal talents but almost all of them had warts. Pedro Alvarez could hit the ball a mile but was just as likely to strike out and against a lefty wasn’t likely to make contact. His defense was passable until he inexplicably developed the yips throwing the baseball.

Neil Walker adapted well to second base and was an effective bat in the middle of the order. As a switch hitter, he heavily favored the left side to the point many wanted him to forgo batting from the right side at all.

Clint Barmes was an excellent defensive shortstop, but provided very little with the bat. He served as a veteran influence on a less than highly touted prospect named Mercer. I know Barmes wasn’t internally developed but sometimes the veteran influence is just as much a part of that development as the draft pick itself.

Gregory Polanco had raw tools and in stretches he showed how they could all add up to quite a formidable player. Aided by the benefit of time, we’ve seen that very much so is the definition of Polanco.

Andrew McCutchen was the Star, and he had his own mission and vision for what he could be. Not to say he was un-coach-able but he knew what success looked like to himself. He played where he thought he needed to in Center to make him the best outfielder he could be. When he got into slumps at the plate, he worked on his swing. Sure he took advice and tips but rest assured, nobody was more involved in Andrew’s development than Andrew.

Starling Marte was a five-tool player, but that didn’t mean he was ready made to be a star in MLB. His highs were very high, his lows were just as low, but Starling showed the most talented player isn’t always the best player. Obviously Marte was a really good player but the Pirates never managed to drag that power tool up to where they thought it could be and his occasional lack of focus bit him and the team more than you’d like.

First base was a revolving door for years, the Pirates were never really able to develop anyone and didn’t really acquire anyone either. Catching was brought in from an unlikely source, free agency, but Russ Martin was the field general.

AJ Burnett was acquired from the Yankees to help the rotation, but nobody including the Pirates organization expected what he would ultimately provide. Liriano was a washed up starting pitcher who signed with the Pirates because his value had fallen off so badly his options were limited. He obviously came up roses for a time and even convinced many that Ray Searage was a pitcher whisperer.

There were obviously more parts and pieces along the way but the moral of the story is really this; not every prospect is going to evolve into a superstar, not every player will reach the potential you think they have but it also doesn’t mean some of those players can’t be part of a winning ball club.

The Pirates got lucky by quickly remaking their pitching staff. That doesn’t happen for a club like Pittsburgh often enough to expect lightning to strike twice in a decade. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try.

When you look at the current roster there are similarities to be sure. Polanco is still the same player, sure he has more mileage but the question marks that plagued his career are still there. Hayes is a solid internal piece, we have no idea how his bat will evolve but he plays defense with passion and his speed and contact have given the Pirates a needed boost in the lineup. There are not many guarantees for who will and won’t be part of the final puzzle, but waiting for perfect or a lineup filled with number one draft picks and incredible international signings takes time.

I’ve heard arguments that Cherington walked into a better situation than Huntington did. It’s hard to argue if you look at the farm system alone, at least the rankings but we have the benefit of time to clearly be able to see what developed out of Huntington’s system he inherited. For instance, let’s take Jordy Mercer, nobody had him penciled in as a locked in starter as a prospect, and I’m sure some take the fact he did as an indictment rather than a pleasant surprise, but the fact remains the club was able to develop a steady glove and serviceable bat at a very important position.

Now jump to the Pirates current system, we all hear names like Cruz, Bolton, Priester, and fans are rightly excited about those guys, but what about the players who just get better every year and develop into someone who could make a real difference? When is the last time you heard about Rodolpho Castro beside when Craig wrote about him? How about Jared Oliva, Bligh Madris, Ji-Hwan Bae, Sammi Siani? Some of these guys will develop. Jared Oliva in fact is 24 years old and should push to make this roster next season, his speed will play, his defense will play and his bat has improved year over year.

My point is this, the issue with the Pirates is not so much that they have nobody in the farm system that will help the club, it’s that most of them are further away than they need to be in order to purge the MLB roster.

Let’s focus on what this system doesn’t have enough of, pitching and power. Cruz can probably show more power, his frame sure makes you feel that, Mason Martin has pop, Craig can hit homeruns (and strike out), Jack Herman is very young but can hit the long ball. That’s not much, and I’m reaching by calling Craig a prospect at this point.

The pitching is actually a bit more scary, Bolton is really all that’s close unless you want to count Brubaker and Ponce. The lower levels are looking much better with Tanaj Thomas, Priester and Malone, but let’s be honest, Thomas is still a relatively unknown to the common fan. When I say common fan, I don’t mean to imply uneducated or ‘casual’, I simply mean there are a whole lot of people who only know the guys they’ve heard Greg Brown talk about on the broadcast or saw Bob Pompeani talk about as part of a trade package. Maybe they only know the number 1 picks.

Some people have skipped over an entire generation of future Pirates to appoint Peguero and Nick Gonzales the next middle infield, talking about their advanced development. They’re both really solid prospects, but that’s exactly what they are, prospects. Nobody the Bucs picked up in the draft last year is one of those guys who jumps from college to an MLB stage. Can they have shorter development calendars? Sure, but shorter doesn’t mean Kevin Newman should feel them scraping his back.

To build this correctly the Pirates need to do things to maximize some of the areas they lack. The pitching in the lower levels can be really solid, but that’s 2 or 3 years away realistically, and that’s not a prediction of when they’ll get here as much as the first window I really feel confident saying some of them will have actual impact.

The reality is our number 2 overall prospect Mitch Keller should be making an impact right now, but you never know how it’s going to go once they get here. He has nothing more to gain by pitching in AAA, he dominated those batters much like Tyler Glasnow before him. At some point you need to let them struggle in MLB to gain their footing. That’s why you can’t pick the date Priester arrives as the window opening wide, he won’t be what we want him to be most likely until he’s had a good season in the Bigs.

Even jumping back to the earlier window I referenced, If Jameson Taillon doesn’t have TJ on his way to MLB, he and Gerrit Cole time up and wind up on that team together and the Pirates probably have that one more big part of the rotation they needed to pass wild card territory and win a division.

I’ve said it myself, the cupboard is bare. Well it’s not, you just need to dig behind the boxes of elbow noodles and canned soup to find more ingredients you long since forgot buying.

None of that makes the current roster easier to watch, but it does show that you can’t always tell who will emerge. I remember 2009 and 2010 being so mad watching this team sign players like Jason Grilli and trading the only guys doing anything positive on the club. Is it the same path? No, of course not, but the similarities are there and this off season will start to show the direction the club will take to improve the product.

These are the controllable elements, the things that can be done regardless of money. You can draft, trade and develop with little cash infused. You can’t control the owner, but I will say last time, he spent. He allowed Neal Huntington to get and pay for AJ Burnett. He was fine with the Pirates outbidding the Yankees for Russel Martin. He didn’t stop his GM from signing Liriano or extending him.

The biggest problem is, it’s hard to find many they should have retained and didn’t. Let me save you time, JA Haap. It was time for Cutch, Walker, Mercer, Harrison, Liriano, Alvarez, and Martin. None of those players have been what they were, in fact many are just about out of baseball. Polanco will add to that list very soon and it won’t be because Nutting didn’t want to spend It’ll be because he played himself out of town.

I don’t say this to pretend he would have kept all those guys if they were still in position to continue playing at a high level, the dude’s cheap, I’m not trying to pretend he’s sitting there with full pockets waiting to spend, but at some point the GM just didn’t provide many cases to even ask.

Maybe you think that’s Josh Bell, I’m not so sure but many do believe he is exactly the type you should keep around long term. They could do it if they wanted to, and yes Boras will deal with them and has, but is he closer to Polanco or Marte? Gerrit Cole was certainly one of those, but he wanted to leave and that’s part of the equation too. Marte had more to give, he too said he wanted out. Bottom line, find me someone worth keeping that wants to stay and then we’ll discuss how none of this matters because Nutting won’t keep any of them.

Payroll is low. Payroll will be low, until such a time as locking down solutions comes up, just like last time. Instead of maxing out at 110 Million or so, we’re probably looking at 130 or so, inflation y’all. Look for that to start with an extension of Reynolds, or maybe a Keller once he’s shown himself to be part of the future. The payroll will uptick from there and peak. I’d love for it to stay there while they interchange pieces but the reality of this economic system means it probably won’t. Tampa is Tampa for this very reason, and while I’d love to think it’s a model that can be copied and implemented by anyone, it sure hasn’t been so far by anyone.

The future is murky but believe it or not, it isn’t doom and gloom either. They will improve, if for no other reason than that’s what young players do. But pretending you know the roster composition in 2023 is just as foolish as trying to pick Derek Shelton’s Sunday lineup in advance.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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