7-16-21 – By Gary Morgan
Some of the things that make team building in Major League Baseball interesting, also make it incredibly difficult. Find a loophole, expect it to be closed relatively quickly. Figure out a way to make the system work for you, plan on a new rule being created to toss in a monkey wrench.
One of those rules actually predates the World Series itself, I’m referring to Rule 5.
When you get to the point the Pirates are in their rebuild you start to come to a realization that you may not be able to keep all these guys protected. See, just because someone is in your franchise, doesn’t mean you can just sit on them until you’re ready.
If you sign a player before they’re 19 you have 5 years before you have to protect them. Meaning, if they aren’t on your 40-man by then, another team can scoop them up. 19 or older and you have 4 years to do so.
Something interesting starts to happen when you get to this area the Pirates are approaching. They’ve built up a nice cache of talent to be sure, but with most of them being so far from MLB and relatively close in age the Pirates stand to have no choice but to expose more than a few players they’d really rather not.
I’m not trying to make predictions in this piece because I at least need to get past the trade deadline before I can really take in the whole landscape, but I will give you a couple examples of guys they might have to at the very least think about exposing.
Braeden Ogle the big lefty reliever is someone who has a real shot to make the club, even this year. If he does this issue will be moot because clearly he’ll be on the 40-man, but for some reason, say injury, he misses the remainder of the season and they head into December just not knowing what’s going to happen with him, you may see them roll the dice and hope he doesn’t get swiped.
Cole Tucker as we keep telling you, needed to really do something this year, because to use a roster spot to protect a guy who just hasn’t done anything, well how shall I put this, Cole could easily wind up being someone else’s Ka’ai Tom.
I was reminded recently while listening to Dejan’s Daily Shot of Pirates over at DK Pittsburgh Sports that this perfect storm has happened here before.
During the Dave Littlefield era, specifically 2003, the rule five absolutely decimated the Pirates system. According to Dejan, other team execs were actually out loud laughing as the draft unfolded.
With the first pick the Tigers selected from the Pirates C/INF Chris Shelton.
With the second pick the Padres selected from the Pirates OF Rich Thompson.
With the fourth pick the Mets selected from the Pirates LHP Frank Brooks.
With the sixth pick the Orioles selected from the Pirates INF Jose Bautista.
In the later rounds the Indians were given the same treatment, having 5 selected.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you this was the reason it took them all the way to 2012 to threaten a winning season again, but you can see how this can get away from you if you aren’t careful.
Imagine the Pirates bring in 3-4 more prospects from the trade deadline and decide newly acquired from the Padres Omar Cruz is safe to leave unprotected. It makes sense, as we sit here he’s in Double A Altoona and the big lefty has work to do in order to get closer to MLB. Now think about how the Musgrove trade starts to look different if they lose one of the prospects they worked to have included.
Not every team is going to make picks in the Rule five, in fact the Pirates figured a way to somehow have 3 this year via acquisition and then grabbed another in the AAA portion.
This isn’t typical, but the risk of giving away what you’ve been building is very real.
So, part of me wonders if maybe we the folks who cover the Pirates, and you the fans of said Buccos are maybe not thinking things through entirely when we talk about the team moving a bunch of guys at the deadline? In fact this is why I’ve predicted 3 moves at most.
Moving into next year, they don’t have a ton of guys you could feasibly say are on the cusp of making MLB, and this will force them to make some tough choices, some just for protection sake, and some because they could feasibly see them helping in MLB if forced into action.
Another effect this could have is that the Pirates could need to think a bit differently about the types of returned prospects they seek for some of their pieces.
For instance, they may need to seek players either very far away, like 18-19 or very close, 22-23 in AAA. Guys who they either have no concern whatsoever about protecting yet, or guys they think could jump right into the mix not unlike Joe Musgrove or Colin Moran a few years back.
It’s not like the Pirates MLB roster is stocked with untouchables, so moving on from players like Erik Gonzalez, Cole Tucker, Phillip Evans, Ka’ai Tom, Gregory Polanco and yes even new fan favorite John Nogowski could very well happen this December. The more they move, the more space they create, the fewer prospects they have to risk losing. Its gambling at it’s core, and it’s part of team building that makes this limbo, which 2022 will largely be that much more difficult. Players who could be ready during 2022, might not be to begin 2022.
You’d hate to watch another team take a stab at Tanaj Thomas not unlike the Pirates did with Luis Oviedo but rest assured that is very much so something that could happen. The Pirates want him to be a starter, but his fastball plays right now, and a desperate team looking for cheap high upside pitching could easily say that means he plays right now.
Make no mistake, after the trade deadline, this is the biggest thing on the docket. To understand more of what they’re thinking, pay extra close attention to who they promote and who they don’t. For instance, Rodolfo Castro had never played beyond AA before his time in MLB this season. Well, he needed protected, and whether they thought he was ready or not, his 40-man status made him a viable call up option. As he’s shown you, even if he isn’t 100% ready for the show, he has enough of his bag of tricks developed that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine another team taking a stab at having him ride the pine, especially an AL team that rarely use their bench to begin with.
Nothing is ever as simple as you assume in MLB, and I have yet to find an aspect where that fails to hold up.