When your team is in the position the Pirates are the first move is often the hardest to make. Just take a little trip through any Facebook group or Twitter conversation and you’ll see opinions ranging from ‘this team is only a couple players away if…’ to ‘this club needs to completely blow it up’.
I’ve been there, on both ends. The truth is the longer the Pirates hang out in limbo, the longer feelings will continue to vary like that. I’ve even written more than a few pieces talking about how the Pirates could add to this roster and improve the product without too much financial commitment and no real damage to the overall goal.
What is the overall goal? Well, we don’t really know. I’ve said, ok a ton of people have said, 2022 the teams starts looking fun, 2023 the team starts looking competitive. For me, it’s always been about when the pitching gets here but we and the Pirates would be fools to look at the prospect pool and believe they can just sit and wait.
Before we start getting into the very real reasons why they need more prospects, let’s start with where they are and what’s missing. More than anything, this club is missing players who don’t have the word ‘if’ attached to them. They aren’t alone, every team has to play that to a certain degree, if this guy can stay healthy, if this guy recovers from injury, if this guy can get this one aspect of his game just a little better, you know the type of thing I’m talking about. It’s the very inspiration behind Moneyball really, eliminating some of the ifs by using advanced stats to identify how players measurably can help a team.
Name one player on the Pirates who doesn’t have at least one if. I’d guess that most would say Ke’Bryan Hayes, but he’s 30 games into his MLB career and while I think he’ll be a great player, can you really take all the ifs off the table for him? If you think that’s a yes, how many of you thought Bryan Reynolds was in that category after 2019?
Every season of late we enter with a laundry list of ifs that should they pan out could make this club competitive and more often than not they fall the other way.
I hate comparing the Pirates to the Dodgers because on top of the obvious money side of the game they also do the little things better, so let’s stick in our own division. Let’s go with the Cubs. Every season they start with some very solid locks, they know Anthony Rizzo is going to play good defense, hit homeruns and fill a role in the middle of the lineup. He’s not a perfect player, but he is generally without question.
There are others but I’m using him as an example of someone we haven’t had in Pittsburgh since the Andrew McCutchen trade. You have to have it.
Some people call it the cornerstone, or the anchor and it makes team building easy or hard depending on whether you have one or not.
Bryan Reynolds could very well turn out to be that, after all we’re allowing a 60 game stretch to speak just as loudly as he previous strong season in 2019. Fair or not, those 60 games were that bad though, and again, fair or not, it raised a ton of ifs with him.
Josh Bell has a ton of ifs, mostly on the offensive side of life. He has power, that’s no if but making contact sure is. Defense isn’t an if, he just isn’t that good at it. Perfect example of the Pirates conundrum, Bell is the only guy capable of hitting 50 homeruns on the club, but you’d gladly trade him for a guy you could count on to hit 30. The upside is sexy, the downside is awful and reality dictates he’ll fall right in the middle of those two scenarios.
Maybe you don’t agree with that line of thought. Some people love to live on the edge of upside, and if that’s your bag, this is a great team for you. Go up and down this roster and for the most part the upside is compelling for a bunch of guys.
I have to believe this is how most people think because consistency isn’t rewarded with the same faith as potential here in Pittsburgh. Let’s head to the other end of the spectrum, Jacob Stallings. Jake is going to give you a .250 batting average or a tick higher, hit half a dozen homeruns or thereabouts and play great defense. Yet out of every position on this club more fans want him replaced than any other.
Look, not saying he’s a superstar, just saying you know what he is. He’s shown you and you can count on it. Yet more fans want to see Anthony Alford anointed with the starting CF job than those who want to bank on Stallings to hold down the job until the time they develop a better option.
More people are excited by players in Single A than a starting pitcher who finished last season on a no-hit streak who is still listed as one of the club’s top prospects.
I ran a poll on Twitter Saturday.
Now most people probably just took it as a generic poll and that’s exactly what I hoped, because I genuinely wanted to see where fans have their eyes set. I picked two players who have just started their MLB career and are commonly seen as part of the future core, and two players seen as part of the future core who haven’t really gotten to show us much of anything. Not shocked at all to see Hayes win the poll, but I found it very interesting that Keller finished last.
Interesting, not unexpected. Here in Pittsburgh pitching has been a problem for almost as long as the franchise itself has existed. We don’t have Bob Gibson’s, or Whitey Ford’s, instead we have pitchers who had relatively short spurts of greatness.
Kevin Newman had a wonderful 2019 and some people took that as where he can be as his norm. Most experts have consistently pointed out his numbers behind the stats don’t add up to him repeating the feat. Now that doesn’t mean he can’t, but when you’re building a team the downside is just as important as the upside. Numbers are numbers and they’re going to flex, but ranges tend to hold firm. Kevin could continue to use his speed to make the hard hit rate not matter, but he just as easily could be Trevor Williams, constantly chasing the dragon that had become his high in 2018.
We also don’t tend to reward actual improvement. Colin Moran has improved every season since he came here and while he’ll probably not hit as many homeruns as Josh Bell, he also won’t fall into gullies of zero production for weeks at a time.
Now, I guess this can be taken as a plea for the Bucs to accept mediocrity, that’s not what I’m shooting for, but I see how it could be taken that way. What I’m suggesting is no matter who the Pirates trade they aren’t moving a guy who is without concern that his downside has just as much shot of stepping to the forefront as his upside.
That’s going to lead to being mad that Joe Musgrove is a 16 game winner somewhere, or Josh Bell hits 45 homeruns for another team. Or it could just as easily mean Joe never figures it out.
60 games wasn’t enough to flush Bryan Reynolds, 30 isn’t enough to anoint Ke’Bryan Hayes, but we and management needs to recognize when they find those players who have eliminated the big ifs and make sure they have them to build around.
Maybe that player isn’t here. As I said, I look up and down the roster and can’t find anyone I can truly say I know what I’ll get outside Stallings, but it’s incredibly hard to build until you drive the first nail.