The Pirates Should Do More

I understand what this club is doing, anyone who’s read my work knows that. It’s a rebuild and it really doesn’t matter to me if they say it or not, but it certainly is. I’m sure there are some people out there who hear the team say build instead and are somehow placated but how you could be a Pirates fan and be fooled by that I’ll never know.

Now, because I understand its a rebuild, I also understand that functionally it doesn’t matter who they sign or how much money they cost.

Here’s the plan that has been roughly advanced, and I say roughly because if they aren’t even going to say the word why would we expect that the “plan” would be clearly outlined? The team will evaluate who is here, add talent to the minor league system and supposedly spend money when the team is close.

That sounds nice, it even sounds logical, but the team misses the mark on a couple concepts here, and so do fans for that matter.

From the fan standpoint, seeing payroll as the only way to see a winning club is just wrong. The payroll is insanely low right now and that’s while paying over 11 million for one player, Polanco. There is quite possibly no easier way to explain that the payroll number isn’t everything than to point out that Polanco makes double what his next closest compadre pulls in.

If you gave Ben Cherington 100 million tomorrow and said go nuts they could certainly improve but winning requires developing some talent too.

The Pirates you see right now are a product of a failed rebuild.

Sure, Neal never said the word either and he stunted the very effort he was undertaking when he traded for Chris Archer, but make no mistake, that’s what they were trying to pull off.

If you really want the truth, this team’s biggest problem is they, at least to this point, never go far enough. When Huntington traded Cole and Cutch, everyone else of value should have followed. Instead they tried to pretend Marte and Taillon would step right up and they’d never have to dip.

Clearly wrong and it didn’t take the prism of history to get there. Hey, they didn’t fire the guy for doing a great job after all.

Now Ben Cherington is here and yes he has the same owner.

If they’re to be believed, if Ben thought he was a piece or two away he could spend whatever the mythological budget would be to get the job done. We of course don’t know what that number is just like the Dodgers don’t, but we have some clue. Bob has never given them much to work with, the peak being in 2017 where the opening day roster had them around 100 million. Purely for perspective that was good for 23rd in the league and about 132 million less than the top spending Dodgers.

A big wrinkle there is those numbers are based on the overall payroll, look at just the 25-man figures and you see another major difference, the Pirates payroll when you look at it that way was only 92 million give or take while the Dodgers sat at 155 million. Still a wide span but what this shows is the Dodgers had roughly 120 million in dead money while the Bucs had 8.

You can look all this up and you’ll find different numbers but the proportions won’t change much. I found about 10 different figures out there so if you want to fight over a few nickels that might have been missed, have at it, just find someone who cares first.

That’s a very long way of saying, around 100 million is probably close to what Bob is comfortable spending, for a winner. That’s not enough, it won’t ever be enough unless they build most of the team from their own development system and augment.

That’s what this was supposed to be but it didn’t work. Now they’re saddled with an incredibly low payroll, probably as low as 55 million if they were to move nobody. I fully expect them to do so and I don’t expect salary to come back.

They have about 18 million in committed payroll, meaning contracted and locked in. Everything else is MLB minimums or expected arbitration awards.

That’s nothing in the grand scheme of baseball, but it probably won’t go up next season either. Polanco’s ouster alone will put 8.5 million back in their pocket after the buyout.

If Ben were to decide hey, I’ve got 45 million to play with, I’m sure he’d be allowed to spend it but it wouldn’t bring a winner. And who would be jettisoned for nothing? There are clear areas where they could look to upgrade immediately like center field, or first base, even catcher, but look at the team, does that add up?

We know they’d like to make some trades and while its easier to say Bob is ordering payroll reduction, critically look at this club and understand why this is happening.

They need new players, better players, but signing new players and cutting what they have for nothing in return would leave the system right where it is. Gradually improving through the draft every year but generally getting nothing for players is a losing proposition.

Now, I’ve explained why they won’t and shouldn’t try to spend up to their admitted cheap ceiling but does that mean they shouldn’t spend anything?

No.

There are smart plays out there and reasons to add to the club beyond “trying to win” or “proving to the fans” no this team needs to spend a bit just to keep their system from being prematurely tested.

You can’t look at 2020 with any seriousness for many things. One thing you can absolutely take away however is that the system has no answers if the club needs them. Last season when the Pirates called up Nick Mears I remember calling Craig (Toth) my partner because I remembered he wrote a piece about Nick and I wanted to understand why a guy who just reached AA was one of the first call ups. I’ll never forget what he said. He was happy for Nick but knew it was way too early and he hoped it didn’t hurt his progression.

It’s not that the Pirates have nothing in the system, it’s that they are all so far away. AAA is really barren, in fact the Pirates have maybe two players who could make their debut in 2021, O’neil Cruz and Rodolfo Castro. Beyond that, you have to go back to the AA level.

Part of that is going to change because they’ll be forced to promote some guys but that won’t make them MLB ready. They have a lot of options in the bullpen at the MLB level but locking in the 25 man will cause some of those options to be cut and lost so in many ways the apparent depth is faux.

All that being said, affordable depth, hell I’ll say it, affordable upgrades are out there. The Pirates desperately need outfield help and I don’t say that because I’m assuming Polanco stinks (although it’s not exactly a long odds bet) or because I think Bryan Reynolds is what we saw in 2020. It’s not even that I assume Anthony Alford won’t turn out to be a decent player. Its because I can’t see getting through a season with the four options they have including Jared Oliva.

David Dahl signed with the Texas Rangers for one year at 3 million dollars. Hunter Renfroe signed with the Red Sox for 3.1 Million with up to 600K in incentives. These are just two players, neither of them are sure fire upgrades but both have pedigree and have tasted success. Both are relatively cheap. Both would ensure the Pirates don’t have to rely on their empty system to produce help. Both could turn into nice assets to move for prospects at the deadline which would accelerate the prospect building effort.

I’m not married to these guys, but these are exactly the types of players the Pirates should be looking to add this year and not so you feel better about the payroll, it’s more about protecting the fragile system.

Money isn’t going to fix that. If you want to look back to the Archer deal and believe the system would be better had it not happened, I’d remind you there is only one player left in the deal who hasn’t entrenched themselves at the MLB level and this would still be an issue.

How bad is the system? Well put it this way, when you pick up two guys in the Rule 5 draft and they jump right into your top 20-21 prospect list, you have a problem.

I trust Ben to fix the system, he already has improved the top prospect core in his first year and I expect him to continue with that work but you don’t get bonus points for spending as little as possible on the way.

Many will harken back to Ben saying they would reinvest what they aren’t spending now when the time comes to add payroll. Well, I’ll believe it when I see it. If you tell me that 100 million is the baseline, and this year’s payroll will sit around 55-60 million, technically that should mean he has 40 million in the proverbial bank for later right?

Does anyone believe that?

I don’t, and more importantly, I don’t need to in order to believe the job can be done here if executed correctly.

So rather than save nickels on the way there and hope one day all the ‘savings’ are handed back to the GM to kick it over the edge, I say spend a little more now on players like Dahl and Renfroe to protect the system, bring in tradeable assets or worst case be surprised by the performance of some guys to the point of considering extensions.

The Pirates spent most of the 2010’s with a fairly steady payroll so they can do it.

Now don’t get me wrong, sometimes that player I’m talking about ends up looking like John Jaso or Lonnie Chisenhall, it’s not always a win. Unless the win you’re looking for is not forcing Travis Swaggerty to be ready in 2021 because he won’t be even if he has to be.

I hate to say it’s not about winning because at the end of the day eventually that has to be the goal. But I’m going to say these suggestions aren’t geared toward winning right now, they’re more about stemming the tide of MLB ready gaps that the club needs to get past which will at least stretch into 2022 before it starts to shake out a bit.

It also could prevent the embarrassments we’ve seen in recent years where you actually could make an argument that your back up catcher is a better option than three members of the bullpen.

If you look at this roster and think it stinks, I’ll tell you yes but left untouched it will improve. But this team is one outfield injury away from being forced into some very bad decisions and if I’m Cherington and knew I could avoid it by signing a couple legit players, I happily do it. I’d like to think he isn’t dumb enough to believe he’s got a Nutting savings account collecting interest.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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