Something I’ve learned as I’ve covered the Pirates is that fans have a ton of different ways they see events that have taken place.
I used to believe most of these differences were generational, I mean some of you have seen a couple championships then watched the game change. There’s bitterness because ownership has sucked for decades now and the only real common denominator has been that they either didn’t have money or wouldn’t spend it if they did.
At this point though, I’ve come to realize it’s more about human nature than it is this fan base alone.
Back in 1992, I was 15 years old. The Pirates were coming off three straight years of being top contenders for the World Series, and they quite possibly had the best player in the game Barry Bonds. I remember hearing how ridiculous his salary demands were, how no one player was worth that kind of money. After all it was his lollipop arm that led to them losing the playoff series against the Braves anyway.
I was a kid, I took what was said at face value. The media helped paint him as a bad guy, helped make sure everyone knew how foolish it was to give that kind of payday to any one player. Besides, we had this superstar Jeff King coming up anyway, so we’d be fine. Largely, most of the people covering the team simply knew the Pirates couldn’t sign him and it used to be much more normal for media to help the local clubs look better.
We all know what that next season brought, and what it started. Baseball changed, but it didn’t overnight turn into drastic have versus have not situation we see today. That took time.
The Pirates have had exactly two number one picks really turn into transformative figures in the stretch of time since Barry leaving. Andrew McCuthen and Gerrit Cole.
There is quite possibly no more damning a stat related to this franchise than that. This is a team that has swung and missed on their number one pick more than you can afford while remaining competitive.
It’s far too early to predict that Ben Cherington is better at it yet, all we have to go on is where his latest selections fall in the Pirates Prospect rankings and the reality of baseball is we won’t really know for 4 or 5 years.
I started this piece looking at the obvious, the number one picks. Top picks fail all the time, you know that because it was a favorite pastime of Mr. Huntington to go out and collect former first round selections off the waiver wire by way of trying to help his own meager system out. As usual Neal was always looking in the wrong direction while the action happened behind him when it comes to developing the fuel for his furnace.
Over time stories get passed down and events get boiled down to bullet points. For instance, we forget that Huntington did a very good job of building and strategically bringing in talent to build the teams that competed for the NL Central title in the middle of the last decade.
Many people remember that run crumbling as an example of Bob Nutting forcing payroll reductions on Neal, but really it pointed at another deficiency that we’re still living with today, his system.
They had nothing coming. I still remember a week of hype that the Pirates number one pick Brad Lincoln was going to make his debut and he was going to face Steven Strasburg, a battle of number one picks. A peek into the future as these two would be battling each other for years to come.
Didn’t really work out that way did it?
All of this is exactly why we are where we are today. You can look at system rankings and pretend everything is ok, but those rankings don’t tell you how that talent will translate to MLB. Those rankings don’t tell you how far away from MLB they are, not by themselves anyway.
I can make a really good looking team in 2023 but that’s the kind of thinking that leads to the conundrum they’ve created.
Sure they’ll keep drafting and developing, bringing in more talent but if they stop bringing it in via trades prematurely it won’t create the overflow of depth situation they’re looking for. If they choose to sit back and believe everyone in their system will suffer no injuries, have no setbacks, play up to their pedigree and wake up in 2023 ready to compete and burnish the logo, there simply won’t be enough.
A team like Pittsburgh needs MLB stocked and a host of players begging to make the leap from AAA. I’ll go so far as to say if the Pirates are built right, the general fanbase has no idea who Quinn Priester is right now. I mean we look at High A players as a hope for a chance someday, and while some of us will certainly still look to and talk about prospects of that level but the focus will shift to the current club and the next level for depth.
That’s been the plan, it remains the plan, the only thing that’s changed is who oversees it.
It doesn’t, and won’t feel good. Even while they’ve lost we’ve come to really love some of these players. Many still have untapped potential, at least we hope they do, but rest assured before this is where Cherington is taking it, most of them won’t be Pirates.
Some of you will have to look away while this is happening, in your heart you know it’s a necessary purge, but that doesn’t mean you have to like watching it and on top of that there’s always a chance he isn’t going to make all the right moves.
That’s why, more than any reason, Cherington needs to stack the deck. He can’t say, oh I have Mason Martin, first base is set. Before his vision comes to fruition we’ll be talking about a multitude of options at most positions, not one we pluck from A ball and plop in a target ETA season.
Again, it’s not the same game it used to be and while I suppose Ben believes Bob Nutting will give him the money he’s not spending now to sew up holes later, I don’t. And building the system properly hedges the bet.
Trading players now for prospects doesn’t make the Pirates the AAA for the rest of baseball, it makes the Pirates AAA exactly what it’s supposed to be, the fuel that fires the engine.