Sometimes we watch players join the system and worry about who will start where, or who’s blocking whom. That’s certainly one way to look at developing a system in baseball, one that has been effective through the years too.
Those are things you have to address at some point and as baseball has evolved it’s been eroded a bit by the increased focus on position flexibility. The ethos that athletes being able to play multiple positions makes the club’s job of pulling skill sets together easier.
Skill sets are loosely defined by the five tools. Speed, Power, Hitting (average), Fielding, and Arm Strength. I think it’s fair when talking about what an organization needs to stockpile those five tools as they should of course be represented. Toss in Pitching and Catching and I think every organization needs to build a well rounded system with these 7 skill sets.
If you get too enamored with any one or two of these you’re also dooming your club to have to find the missing ingredients in free agency or by trading some of what you’ve stockpiled.
Here in Pittsburgh, we’ve seen this happen a couple times recently. Dave Littlefield for instance wanted to focus almost exclusively on pitching. His thought was that the one thing the club could not afford above all was top shelf pitching and by focusing on amassing as much of it as he could muster, he hoped to use it both on the field and as capital to buy the areas he had neglected.
OK, I can get behind that I guess, problem was, he stunk out loud at identifying pitching on top of manning the ship before MLB created the tier system for drafting talent that helped curb the rampant ‘sign able’ picks.
What it created was a series of never ending swing and misses on the mound rendering the club worse off than had they been more diverse in their drafting.
Neal Huntington took over and looked for a while like he would do the same thing and perhaps he would have if the league didn’t make that crucial change. Even so he eventually did land on a type if you will. His focus was on Speed.
This system even right now has a ton of speed and the really odd thing about it is baseball has never used less of it. The stolen base has all but been Moneyballed out of the game at this point and speed only get’s you so far in the outfield.
Take a look at the overall picture for the Pirates right now. Really try to put say the top 30 into those 7 buckets I created up there and see where the team leans.
Pitching, Speed and a sprinkling of power, a bit of fielding. Nothing wrong with that mix, just not enough of the areas that mean the most in today’s game. Power is emerging in the form of Mason Martin and Cal Mitchell has potential in High A. Nick Gonzales looks to have a few tools, power being one, but that’s the list and it’s all still at least a season away. Oneil Cruz has power, but until he discovers how to harness it more regularly the impact won’t be felt.
Pitching is coming along nicely with a solid mix of possibilities spread over three draft/international signing classes. Catching is no secret, beyond the three guys in rookie ball there are little more than also rans.
So when you look into the future, you can already see where the Pirates will most likely have strength and where they’ll still need to focus. If we jumped in a time machine to 2026 and the team was largely constructed from what we have in the system right now, they’d pitch pretty well and have to rely on one or two power hitters to drive in the speedsters who are hopefully hitting for average.
While we are sitting here at ground level wondering whether Tucker or Newman will start at short stop and how Cruz factors in, the boiling under the surface direction is being decided.
It’s hard to judge what Cherington is based on what we’ve seen so far, he walked into a situation where selective shopping wasn’t paramount. When you need everything in the store it hardly matters what aisle you start in. He needs all the areas we spoke to, and they all need more fleshed out, so best player available is a great way to go when you’re just digging in.
We don’t like to remember Huntington fondly and for his overall body of work, rightly so, but he did pull most of the right levers to fill the holes he left in the system when the team got close. He went and got the catcher, twice. He went and got the pitching, AJ, Nova, Volquez, Happ. It’s fair to say, feeling you have ‘built’ a winner while actively needing to go out and get two of the most important spots on the field isn’t the norm, but it worked.
His biggest problem was believing because it worked, he could do it again, completely forgetting the part where he sold off almost everything Littlefield handed him and started over.
Cherington is already showing signs of understanding that necessary step, he just hasn’t necessarily found his Cutch yet. Much like making a cupcake, forget the baking soda and you have a gross cookie instead. The approach already seems well rounded and that is something we all can root for, even if we don’t yet see the vision for where all these guys will play when and if they get here.