People Don’t Line Up for a Repeat of a Bad Show

Something weird happens to fans as things unfold over years or even decades of watching a franchise. We forget the how, we um, enhance the why, we ignore the when.

Small tweaks in any of the facts tend to change the actual event in dramatic ways.

For instance, many were so disillusioned by the end of the Huntington era as Pirates GM that we forget the good things he did early on. We forget entirely that his first action was to tear down the continuing pile up of borderline MLB players Dave Littlefield left him and built around the few high end prospects that were in the system. He got lucky on some reclamation projects, and spent real money in free agency to take advantage of things working well with top level development.

They stopped short, and more importantly, they failed to do the right thing again. Instead of using monster assets like Gerrit Cole to acquire high end talent they reached for a quantity of close or borderline MLB talent. Some of it panned out, some didn’t.

It’s led to right where we are now.

A development system that had succumbed to foolish concepts put forth by trusted Generals under Huntington, topped with a host of poor draft selections. An utterly exposed failure to acquire enough top end talent in the draft, and a collection of players who probably reached close to their ceiling already and it’s painfully obvious its not good enough coupled with reaching the end of their team control at the same time.

So Ben Cherington started doing his work.

He moved Starling Marte for two high end prospects with two years left on his deal. Moved Josh Bell for a high end prospect and one much closer to MLB who could be a contributor. Jameson Taillon returning from injury with one year remaining for 4 prospects who so far all appear to be doing well. Joe Musgrove in a three team deal to bring in more prospects and a young reliever with a ton of control.

Each and every one of those players had an expiration date. All set to expire before any of the young, top end talent would arrive.

This would be like buying milk for cereal you plan on getting in a month. Chances are by the time you get the cereal you’ll need more milk, or at least it won’t smell like you hoped when you open it.

The players of course thought they were close and wanted the team kept together. But this is where we really need to look back honestly about what these players were. Reason being, at the very least these players all needed to either sign extensions, or be traded. Starling Marte was maybe a year early for what the team had to do, but he wanted out, he asked to be out. The team certainly didn’t have to agree, but they also knew that decision was coming the next season anyway. In order to avoid it, Marte would have needed extended, even 3 additional years would make him 33-34, and Marte plays a speed game, with power that’s never really fully emerged, at least not to the degree his tool rating suggested it could.

They face other decisions just like that right now. Adam Frazier, two years left, having as we sit here in early June a career season. He’ll be 31 when his team control expires and if you extend him by a few years, chances are you don’t expect him to be starting when he’s 33 or 34. So, yes, they could extend him, but they could move him too, and I’m not sure I can say they shouldn’t. It’s a decision. Not an easy one.

Let’s fast forward a bit to today.

Team isn’t good, I mean imagine that, you trade 4 good players and the team doesn’t improve. That said, there are ways to do this that can work faster, we’ve seen them, arguably none bigger than Cam Bonifay‚Äôs acquisition of Brian Giles way back when. Hell, even in the same time frame Jason Bay I could argue was a much closer to the league and much more of a sure bet to make the jump and be successful than some of the youngsters recently brought in.

I mean, even Huntington’s trade of Cole to Houston brought in Joe Musgrove and Colin Moran. Moran has turned into a useful player, another the Pirates will have to make a decision on very soon, and Joe who the decision was made on and returned all the players in that deal.

Can you seriously not see how this is different from trading prospects for someone who’s supposed to help now? I mean the deal that ultimately ended Huntington’s time in Pittsburgh, even if it had returned someone who really contributed would have put this club in this position.

So why didn’t Ben Cherington do that this time beside the obvious? Why get players so young that the team is going to stink for a couple years? I mean what about the fans right?

It’s a bet.

When you set up a 401K plan at work, most of them will give you some level of control so you feel like you have some say in how it grows. If you’re 25 when you start it, you might want to use a risky approach for investment, if you’re 40 you might want to go safe and steady, because you can’t afford the time to recover from a major setback.

Baseball is the same way. If the Pirates trade Joe Musgrove for instance and bring in one or two players in AAA or even with a bit of experience in MLB, they either start immediately or next at the latest. Most of the Pirates high end talent even before the first move lived in the very lowest levels of the minor league system.

It’s about stacking talent, trying to force the timing together to create a core that has a shot to be no more than an acquisition or two away from being in the hunt, and this time not just a wildcard.

That’s the plan.

Now, things happen. Just this season we’ve seen Travis Swaggerty go down, likely for the season. We’ve seen Miguel Yajure shut down with elbow pain, we can only pray he’s ok after some rest. Nick Gonzales broke his pinky and lost a very good chunk of his first year of real pro ball.

This is why clubs need to stack prospects. Injuries happen, development set backs happen.

Mitch Keller was supposed to be the most ready prospect in the system, ready to step up, ready to lead. He may yet, young players don’t evolve on the timeline you want them to. Look at Brubaker, he’s more advanced than just about anyone thought he would. That’s the way it goes.

Players you didn’t expect will crop up, players you did count on, won’t work out. Some will never be able to stay on the field. Others will stubbornly push back on training or lack the physical capability to perform as instructed, they’ll turn into those prospects that somehow wound up being 27 and haven’t made it yet.

So while I understand it will be upsetting when the franchise makes decisions on players like Adam Frazier, Colin Moran, Richard Rodriguez and Tyler Anderson, really think about the alternative.

Think about what you’re asking for. In some cases it will make sense, like Colin Moran for instance is the most consistent first baseman the team has had since Kevin Young, and I think we’ve seen that Will Craig is, at least not yet, the answer. Maybe Mason Martin is, he’s doing well in AA, seems to be addressing his issues with strike outs but his timeline even if he has no hiccups probably has him up here or pushing for it in 2023. Would it be bad to have Colin Moran there to be pushed aside?

Again, not advocating either way here, just illustrating these decisions aren’t all the same because let’s be honest, if someone wants to give the Pirates an MLB top 100 player, it’s hard to say they’d be smart to pass it up.

One thing I can honestly say though is this isn’t about salary, not right now. Even if Adam Frazier stays on this track and wins the silver slugger for second basemen, his arb settlement won’t eclipse 10 million in arbitration. More importantly, they wait and risk losing him for nothing, well, probably a comp pick, which isn’t the worst outcome, but not ideal.

Every single one of these is a choice. They’re either someone to be moved because they won’t be part of the solution, someone to be retained for a while to build a bridge to more talent, or someone to be retained long term because they are part of the new core.

If you simplify this down to Nutting doesn’t want to spend, it’s hard to overtly say you’re wrong, his spending, or lack thereof created the situation, and I’m not here to tell you this leopard will change his spots. Right now, it’s just not about that. These aren’t big money decisions we’re talking about, these are just choices for roster construction. No, not this roster, the future roster.

Don’t believe? I don’t blame you. I haven’t forgotten why we’re here, but I also can’t sit here and pretend this is the same thing that’s been done in the past. it’s simply not, and while nobody can guarantee it will work, or Bob Nutting will help sustain it I can say Cherington is operating as though he believes. Maybe he’s a fool. I’m sure he isn’t the first person to have Mr. Nutting sell him a bill of goods, but maybe he’s building enough protection to keep the franchise heading in the right direction regardless.

This part isn’t fun and I completely get it, but don’t dumb this stuff down to “Nutting Cheap”, it’s part of the story for sure, but it also isn’t the story of every player they decide to move on from.

Some players will go, some will stay. I don’t expect you to be happy when it happens, but I’d like to think at least seeing the difference in methodology might help you cope with the decisions.

You’re smart people. Smart people who’ve been hurt and lied to. That’s not easy to recover from in life or fandom, and it’s not on you to fix it, it’s on them. Think your way through this build and you’ll give yourself the power to predict what’s coming instead of react to what happens in the moment.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

2 thoughts on “People Don’t Line Up for a Repeat of a Bad Show

  1. It’s easy to look at Cole’s performance for Houston and now NY and conclude the Pirates should have received much more in return for him. But that was not the version of Cole that Houston was acquiring.

    After 2 encouraging but hardly overwhelming seasons, he had an outstanding 2015 (19-6, 2.60 ERA). He followed that with a very disappointing, injury plagued 2016 (7-10, 3.88) and even when healthy in 2017 he struggled to a 12-12 record and an unimpressive 4.26 ERA.

    That was the player Houston traded for. A ton of potential but only 1 standout season in 5 years and even that one was 3 years earlier. Cole said he learned things in Houston he didn’t know as a Pirate. But there was no guarantee the Astros were acquiring a superstar pitcher. The Pirates’ failure to develop their pitching prospects is a double edged sword. They struggle thru the growing pains and the next team reaps the rewards while the player doesn’t perform well enough as a Pirate to bring enough back in a trade.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All true, but also missing the point. They got back 4 players all of whom had a shot to be good. Huntington targeted players closer to the league, meaning their ceilings were defined and educated by their development level. Had they instead chosen to go after players with higher upside in lower levels of development, some of those players could be here right now, not facing the end of team control on the horizon. Your assumption is that I forget what Cole was here, but in reality I’m speaking to the very type of prospects Huntington was looking for, it was a purposeful misfire.

      Liked by 1 person

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