When I hear general managers from around Major League Baseball talk, I always take much of what they say with a grain of salt; all while trying to read between the lines or concentrating on key words in an attempt to interpret the message they might be trying to convey. Sometimes they give you a pretty clear message, but even then it is hard to not be skeptical. So, it is no surprise that when Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Ben Cherington speaks I find myself doing this little dance, trying to decipher the truths through perceived inconsistencies.
When Cherington came on the scene during the past off-season, shortly after the Starling Marte trade, he was quoted as saying, “A good chunk of players who were on the team last year will be on the team this year, and they really do have a chance to be part of that next winning team. We’re just trying to build toward that.”. He continued with, “The way I look at it, the way we’re looking at it — and I really believe this — is there’s a group of young players here who are either already on the team or close to being on the team that we truly believe will be part of our next winning team. So our focus is really to build with that group,”.
No specific players were mentioned by Cherington at the time, however, a whole lot of speculation as to who he could be thinking of when he made these statements; mostly consisting of Pirates who were on the Major League Roster at the time. Could he mean Josh Bell and Joe Musgrove? Or, it had to be Mitch Keller and Bryan Reynolds he was talking about. Ke’Bryan Hayes’ name was also mentioned in passing at the time due to him being on the cusp of joining the big league team.
Now, just a couple of days ago Cherington sat down with the media following the trade of Joe Musgrove to the San Diego Padres, and not even a month removed from the Christmas Eve trade of Josh Bell to the Washington Nationals, to attempt to provide us with some details surrounding the decisions that have been made thus far. Right way some fans’ memories jumped back to the previous quotes by Cherington about a young core, that obviously no longer included Bell or Musgrove, as it was clear that he had blatantly lied to us. But did he really? With no names uttered and a pile full of assumptions, it may never be known exactly who Cherington had in mind, if the 2020 season, albeit shortened, had changed his perception or at least caused the evaluation process to be updated; while the remaining portion of the quote about being a part of the next winning team is pure GM speak. I mean, there isn’t any MLB General Manager alive, or dead, that hasn’t talked about victories, championship or something as truly vague as winning.
However, the focus did not remain partially in past for very long as the conversations concerning finances and payroll emerged; which somewhat justifiably, almost always seems to dominate the discussions when it comes to the Pirates, Cherington and especially Bob Nutting. During this same press conference Cherington reported to those present that, “Coming into the offseason, there was no need to move money, no need to move payroll for the sake of moving payroll. There was no request for that. We haven’t made a single move for financial considerations.” Some immediately made the assertion that this was an outright lie on the part of Cherington, however, this is extremely hard to prove with 100% certainty. Sure it’s something that can be hypothesized based on the current payroll of approximately $42 million when compared to the $74 million it was at the beginning of 2019, but its far from a given, especially since at least a few of the moves are ones we all saw coming, with a few being ones that many of us agreed with.
As the current off-season began it was apparent that the Pirates payroll was going to decrease; and did so pretty much immediately. Chris Archer had a $11 million team option, which the Pirates decided to buy out for a mere $250K. After having undergone surgery in the beginning of June 2020 to relieve symptoms of neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS), it was almost a foregone conclusion that Pittsburgh would not pick up the option; a decision most conceded was the correct call. Only a few weeks later Trevor Williams, who was discussed a potential non-tender candidate due to his recent struggles and estimated $3.2-$4.4 million arbitration salary for 2021, was designated for assignment in order to make room on the 40-man roster in order to protect player(s) from the then upcoming Rule 5 Draft. Once again, it was acknowledged that this was more than likely the appropriate determination. That’s $14.2-$15.4 million off the payroll, just in those two moves alone.
Now, after jumping past some minor moves, that brings us to the approximate $10.85 million the Pirates saved by trading Bell and Musgrove during the past month; minus any of the salaries coming back of course. As hard as I try, I can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt these trades weren’t made to preserve money, even if I honestly believe they were ultimately the right moves; just like it is impossible to prove with absolute certainty that they were salary dumps, plain and simple. And ultimately this is where the disagreement comes in concerning Cherington’s original statement.
Could it be a lie or a twisting of the truth at the very least? Yes. Could it be the honest to goodness truth? Also, yes. Unfortunately, as with many things almost every MLB GM says, Cherington included, it is often almost impossible to determine the absolute truths from the boldfaced lies; if it is even that black and white to begin with.