11-15-21 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter
Big week, and I’m going to try to not touch it in this piece. The deadline for Rule Five protection is the 19th of November so I expect a fairly active week across MLB and the Pirates are no exception. If you haven’t read it yet, Craig and I broke down what we expect to see as well as our concerns. Check it out.
Believe it or not, there are other things to talk and think about, but it’s hard to stray too far from this topic even if just on the peripheral.
1. Outfield Madness
Of all the Rule 5 stuff, the outfield is arguably the strangest. As we sit here the Pirates have Greg Allen, Anthony Alford, Ben Gamel and Bryan Reynolds on the 40-man. They need to protect Travis Swaggerty, Cal Mitchell, Canaan Smith-Njigba and I could argue Jack Suwinski. Now just from a roster construction standpoint, having 7 or 8 members of your 40-man be outfielders is at least odd. Considering 20 will be pitchers most likely (maybe more) that leaves very little room for anyone else.
Perhaps that’s why MLB Pipeline felt Travis Swaggerty isn’t a slam dunk to be protected. It’s such a large number for one position group part of me thinks we might just wind up being shocked by what they actually decide to do here. I’m still predicting they protect Swaggerty, Mitchell and Smith-Njigba, but Jared Oliva is an easy out, and I might include Alford. Swaggerty’s injury last season helped make this situation worse, he could have been in MLB last season and then he’s not a question mark, as it stands, he’s been on the sideline watching the group start to catch up.
Interesting decisions here, keep an eye on how they handle it as it will directly speak to some other players on the bubble.
2. They Won’t Cut Loose Everybody Yet
When this deadline passes, it doesn’t mean this is the 40 man they plan to enter 2022 with. There will be guys left on this roster that are nothing more than filler. Let’s say Tanner Anderson for instance survives this round, well when the Pirates bring in competition via Free Agency, guys like him are fodder for DFA. They have to do this because it would be foolish to protect a prospect only to try to remove him and sneak him through waivers. If you’re worried about a guy getting taken in the Rule 5, well, worry more about them getting through waivers.
I’d also say this deadline will advise how they plan to handle Steven Brault and Chad Kuhl. Both are due to be tendered for arbitration in early December and if the club plans to let both walk, now would be the time to remove them from the 40 to get an extra spot or two for protecting prospects. It’s not the deadline, but mentally it kinda is.
3. Sooner Than Some People Think
This was Ben Cherington’s quote to MLB Network when asked about the timing for the Pirates being competitive. Now what does that mean?
Some people took that to mean watch out we’re going to ADD this off season, others took it as a non-committal way of saying it’s coming without pinning himself down. In reality it’s probably more about really liking the mix he’s creating and likes the swell he’s got coming.
No GM is ever, ever going to tell you we’ll be good in these years, instead they’ll always handle it with vagueness like this, but it’s better than saying 4 years right?
When this whole thing started with Cherington I felt we were in for a few very bad seasons and 2023 would be what I’ve called “fun”. So far, I can say we’re on my proposed track, a terrible 2020, awful 2021, and I’ll be bold here and say 2022 won’t be good either with the caveat after the All Star Break I think we’ll start really feeling the infusion of youth. This sets up for a very fun 2023 with some more prospects pushing their way in too and 2024 investment time.
From moment one of this effort, that last point, investment time, has been the elephant in the room. They either do it or they’re no different than they’ve been. They’ll still be a competitive team, but a threat to win it all simply won’t happen without that last step and until we see it, I won’t believe it. Call me jaded if you want, I still think this is the right path for this team under this system, but until I see actual investment in the MLB product when the timing matches up, I’m going to hedge my bet. Maybe I’m just protecting myself, but I’d rather not be crushed by at least convincing myself it probably isn’t going to happen.
4. The Core is Forming
It’s early in this rebuild, even if it feels like we’ve been waiting since 2016, it’s important to really give Ben Cherington a clean slate, so in my mind the effort really started in 2020. You could argue some of the wheels started turning in 2018 but I’m going to give Ben a bit of separation from what was done and what is being done.
Bryan Reynolds, Ke’Bryan Hayes, David Bednar and arguably Jacob Stallings are the core of this unit. In 2022 I think we’ll see Roansy Contreras and Oneil Cruz added to that list at a minimum. Really thinking about where this thing is headed, it’s clear pitching remains the single biggest issue. I look at the minor leagues and I see talent, but I’ve been around a long time, in no way am I going to sit here and envision the winning rotation of the future all resides there.
Some things that could really guide the timeline is how some pitchers evolve this season. If just one of Brubaker, Keller or Wilson take a jump this team could wind up with 2/5 of a rotation with reinforcements on the way. If none of them proves themselves as an answer the bats are going to absolutely boat race the pitching aspect of this plan meaning they absolutely would have to invest in that aspect to maximize that first wave.
When we throw around terms like “tear down to the studs” we meant it, and this is what has survived the sifter. There is much work to be done, but unlike 2020 when you look down you actually see some lights.
Everyone hates hearing this, but it’s a process. It’s much easier to point out all the holes, but sometimes it’s therapeutic to look at the slots that are starting to fill.
Another thing that could really help would be for some of the small pieces to sort themselves out in the middle infield. Michael Chavis, Oneil Cruz, Diego Castillo, Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker, Tucupita Marcano, Rodolfo Castro, Ji-Hwan Bae and more are all going to compete in a season long slobber knocker to hopefully come out of this season with some real answers. Find no answers and the Nick Gonzales/Liover Peguero anticipation will take over. No matter what you think of any player I mentioned, it’d be a hell of a lot better for the Pirates if you were genuinely worried about who goes for those two top prospects in a year.
5. The Detroit Tigers Are a Fun Comp Team to Watch
News broke today that Eduardo Rodriguez is headed to the Tigers on a 5 year deal. They’ve been building through the draft ever since they tore it down as far as they could. I say could because they’d love for someone to take Miggy off their books, but it is time. They have the prospects in place, they’ve retained some of the early arrivers and they’re ready to ramp back up now.
Detroit has something the Pirates don’t, and that’s a history of doing exactly this. Building the system via trade/draft and international market then spending, all the way to 172 million and they did it for a stretch of years too.
When the Tigers tell their fans they’re going to go into a rebuild, those fans have real world, recent examples of their team spending to make it work. When the Pirates tell you they’re going into a rebuild it literally means if they’re a good player and aren’t controlled for half a decade they’re gone and you best hope for GREAT return because that spending hasn’t been there.
Detroit is a very similar market to Pittsburgh, and I look at them because they’re about a year or two in front of the Pirates. Very similar paths with high draft picks, moderate stars to move, an albatross contract (albeit nowhere near as bad as Polanco’s was) and a young group with a few standouts starting to show good and more on the way.
That team has spent big, this one hasn’t. Everything on the way is exactly the same, until you hit that one area. If the Pirates break trend, we’re all in for a very fun era of Pirates baseball, if they don’t we’re all firmly planted in HOPE that so many prospects thrive they don’t need much more.
Look, nature will take it’s course and just through attrition this payroll will top 100 million before this is all done, but will they spend that extra 30-40 to push the envelope? That my friends is something history tells me I shouldn’t bank on, but I have to acknowledge that Cherington’s history is very much so doing exactly that, and he took this job knowingly.
Regardless, I feel comfortable saying Detroit is exactly what you hope for when your team rebuilds and up until that time where pushing it comes into play, the Pirates are right on track. We’ll see.