Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

11-29-21 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

Hope everyone had a very Happy Thanksgiving being with family and friends, I for one feel like I start every family function with an impromptu half hour Pirates Q&A. So, in the spirit of coming together and trying like hell to have good conversations let’s dig in to today’s Five Thoughts.

1. Supporting the GM Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Question Him

I’m quite happy with the job Ben Cherington has done since coming on board. He’s added top end talent by trade of less than stellar pieces, by drafting in a bold manner to acquire top end prospects in multiple rounds, and rebuilding the system, well, it’s kinda the heart of a rebuild folks.

So, if and when someone wants to criticize that the Pirates aren’t active in the free agent market I get a little irritated that some see it as changing the words of Jesus in the Bible. There are so many ways to do this, it’s silly to even suggest anyone’s idea of the “right” thing to do is wrong on it’s face.

Here’s the thing, I know exactly why it’s this way.

Believers in the church of Cherington seem to have taken as gospel a never spoken truth. There is an ever growing pile of cash being set aside, built from every dollar not spent on the payroll to the team’s budget. So let’s say in 2021 they had an internal budget of 100 million (just go with it, this isn’t a real example) well they’d set aside like 45 million to be used when the team is “ready” to compete.

He’s never said this.

Nobody on the team has ever said this.

Nobody in management has ever said this.

I’ll give you it’s been assumed. I’ll give you other teams do it. I’ll even give you they should do this. But I can’t give you that it’s fact.

What has been said is he’s been assured when the time is right, the money will be there. Now, I’m not here to tell you this isn’t happening in the background, but I am here to tell you it’s never been stated, therefore it isn’t a fact you should use to brow beat fans who want to see some investment now.

Think of it this way, there are fans who don’t believe you can just suddenly spend and build a cohesive unit that pulls off the long jump to competitive with a bunch of high end rookies and 50 million dollars in free agent adds overnight. Some of them think adding pieces along the way both makes the team easier to root for on the way, and provides a measuring stick that prospects have to beat to earn a spot.

That’s ok folks. A team can be built this way too, so why run cover for the Pirates, Bob Nutting and Ben Cherington when, first, they didn’t ask you to, and furthermore the very premise it’s based on isn’t real?

As far as I’m aware, Ben Cherington is a human, consequently he is fallible. Speak your minds, and have conversations without fear of offending a deity folks. He’s just a guy, doing a job. I’d argue he’s doing a very good job, but the steps forward from here aren’t scripted, and they certainly aren’t right vs wrong.

If you’re disappointed, that’s ok. If you believe they are working under a larger plan, that’s ok too, but please don’t shut down conversation of these things because you magically know intimately what they’re doing, you don’t. I don’t, nobody but Ben Cherington and who he’s chosen to share it with have a clear vision of the exact approach.

2. Isn’t the Goal To, You Know, Play the Kids?

We just talked about the plan and misconceptions of what is fact, so let’s now talk about a concept that should be easy to wrap your head around, and here’s the thing, it might not lead to instant or even eventual success.

When I talk to fans, which happens literally every day, the wish list is rather long for the Pirates. They almost universally want an outfielder, a starter or two, a better backup catcher and some even want a second baseman via trade or free agency.

As I said, I’m not here to say they’re wrong for wanting to see someone come in here and have impact, make the team easier to take in this year, even if by simply looking more professional night in and night out.

I will say however at some point playing the kids has to come.

For instance, let’s look at the outfield picture. They’ve got Greg Allen, Anthony Alford, Bryan Reynolds and Ben Gamel. Super easy to see how and even why they should upgrade here. If I felt every other position around the diamond was on lock down I’d be hard pressed to find a place more apparent to spend and fill with outside talent.

Conversely, the Pirates chose to protect or keep protected, Travis Swaggerty, Jack Suwinski, Canaan Smith-Njigba (who’s brother looks like a hell of a wide out for OSU BTW), and Jared Oliva. That’s 8 outfielders that the Pirates feel can and should be part of the MLB puzzle this season. Some of you out there would even add Oneil Cruz to this mix.

That 4 man mix I listed first is underwhelming to say the least. Reynolds is obviously in a class to himself, but everyone else is either untested, short on opportunity or worse borderline washed out. So if they bring in someone real, like Michael Conforto (and yes they could afford him) that’s great, the 2022 team will be more competent. But I’d have to ask, why protect so many outfielders? Sure, one of Allen or Alford probably hits the road in this scenario, but at what point do the youngsters get a crack? Do you bring Swaggerty up to sit on the bench? If the assumption is they’ll all easily take a full year in AAA, they’re probably poor choices for protection.

Again, I could understand getting someone, but every player you bring in prevents someone else from coming up and getting their sea legs. To be blunt, we mustn’t expect 8-10 rookies to show up in February of 2024 ready to carry this team to a championship. Now is when I’d like to start seeing them get their taste, start to figure out the league, so I’d rather not build artificial roadblocks.

It’s a strange conversation in many ways. Partially because it’s literally arguing for not trying to upgrade, but at the same time it’s kinda about trying to upgrade.

I guess the best way to put it here to illustrate my point of view, I literally can see it both ways here and neither would upset me.

That’s just one position, they have 9 middle infielders, 11 starting pitching options. We could go through them all, in fact if they choose to not move on from Brault and Kuhl I can see a scenario where Brubaker or Keller don’t start in MLB. Is that best for this rebuild? I don’t know, even if I can reasonably say it might be good for the 2022 version of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

3. Hitting Coach is in Place

The Pirates hired Andy Haines to be the new hitting coach. His last stop was Milwaukee and he’s also coached for the Cubs. Funny thing is both of those lineups have been big power, low average squads which seems to not fit the skillset the Pirates have in place. That said, as I’ve mentioned before, the hitting plan is already in full swing, so Haines is simply an administrator in my mind.

I’m sure he has ideas of his own as to how to get through to guys and technique but the overall plan is already in effect. More than anything this management group has preached a player centric, individualized approach so if his only addition to the proceedings is getting through and the ability to do it via personalized tactics it’s a win.

4. Jacob Stallings is a Hot Name on the Market

As I’ve said in the past in regards to Bryan Reynolds, Jake is a good player, of course teams are interested. He solves a problem most teams have, a sure handed, level headed backstop who shows leadership abilities and he can hit a little too on top of being under team control for 3 years more.

Now, will the Pirates bite? Man, I wouldn’t.

I’d personally want Henry Davis to overlap with Jacob once he arrives and the timing of Jake’s control is just too good. I’ll also say the catching market is trash this year, meaning teams are going to pay far more for Jacob Stallings than they would typically. For instance, let’s say I have a 10 year old Ford Truck for sale and mine is one of only 3 or 4 in the region that actually runs. Well, let’s just say people are going to pay more than blue book value right?

That said, the value he provides by being here to me outweighs almost everything I can conceive him bringing back.

Let’s keep in mind an overpay for Stallings could look a lot like the fair return the Pirates got for Adam Frazier. Some decent prospects to be sure, but nobody you’re going to confuse with a close to the league difference maker. I’d also say this franchise has nobody close to helping internally at the position.

So it’d have to be coupled with either a catcher in return who’s ready to play in MLB (and you should assume if the other team thought they were an answer they don’t want Jake), or fishing from the same thin pool that these other teams think so highly of that they’re interested in Jake to begin with.

In fact, the best argument I can make FOR moving him would be 2022 isn’t going to be good, so it’s not a big deal if it’s a little less good.

Some people like to tell you he helps the pitching staff and helps them improve. I can say that’s probably true when he has a more normal situation than he’s had these last two campaigns. In 2019 when he had actual talent to work with on the mound but was clearly pegged to be the backup, pitchers started actively calling for him to catch them. What does this say? Well, clearly at least they thought he made them better or at least more comfortable.

The reason I travel all the way back to 2019 is simple, pitching staffs haven’t been used in a “normal” fashion for the past two years, so some tools have been removed from the box with a guy like Jake. He’s got guys who first of all arguably shouldn’t have been in the league, and youngsters who weren’t really on top of what they have in their quiver when they showed up for the hunt.

Wil Crowe is a great example of this. He has 5 pitches he can throw and any given night a different one could be his best. Jacob is adept at identifying those pitches early and helping them get to what they have working that day. So it isn’t a mistake when Crowe shows up with an unhittable changeup in one outing and by the 4th you look up and notice he’s thrown it 60% of the time.

Does he, personally Jacob Stallings, make the pitchers better? Well, I certainly couldn’t show you that with numbers, but I could show you with small things like what I just described. Maybe it’d be better if he pushed them to throw something that isn’t working and force them to improve it, all I can say is he’s good at this aspect and maybe that is or isn’t important.

If you actively want the Pirates to pull the trigger on a deal like this to me you have to check some boxes.

  1. You have to admit this isn’t going to make the team better, at least not now.
  2. You have to get a very specific return, no more best they would offer deals, this has to be a targeted, we want this guy, type approach.
  3. Be ok with Henry Davis not only having to get here and matter when he does, but now he best work out behind the dish, period.
  4. Be ok with the admission that 2022 and potentially 2023 are mere extensions of an already very long effort.

If you’re ok with all those statements and provided you can actually get number 2, have at it I guess, but I’d really caution this is more than a good defensive catcher who can handle the bat a little, this is a leader on a team where the two best players tend to prefer quiet, performance based leadership. That may be a little hippie inspired intangible for you but I think it’s safe to say he’s the emotional leader of this team, and I’m not sure I’d take it away from a very young core of players.

Look, on a good team Jake is the number 7 or 8 hitter, and if a top prospect is on the way he’s going to offer little resistance, but none of that makes him an easily expendable guy, and it certainly doesn’t make him easily replaceable in the short term.

One more point, and I’m not guessing here, there are players up for extensions the team is actively working with, and both are in the camp of wanting to see the wheels of progress start to encompass the MLB team, not just the minors. You can say that’s short sighted on their part, but just like you need this team to show you they’re serious at some point and commit to improving, they’re human too and don’t want to tie themselves to a ship that’s taking on water. Trading Stallings would be seen as a step in the wrong direction, and even if they’re wrong and Cherington got exactly what he wanted in return it’d be a tough sell. This may be a BS reason to keep him, but if they’re as serious as I believe they are about locking up these players, all that matters is what it means and says to them.

I might come around to understanding it, but I doubt I’d like it, regardless of return here.

5. The Mets Are Spending Like Their Market Says They Should

The New York Mets have been in on damn near every top level free agent on the list this year and they’ve netted their fair share. Max Scherzer, Starling Marte, Mark Canha, and Eduardo Escobar alone would make for a full scale makeover of a team devoid of talent, which this team wasn’t. Easily lapping every other team for payroll additions in the early going here, even adding some players that put some of their own young players in limbo, but the market the Mets enjoy has rarely been met with spending on a level that reflects it. The funny thing is, they share a city with another team that has always spent like sailors on shore leave, and the minimal results they’ve achieved for their efforts seemed to teach no lessons.

The Mets will undoubtedly enter 2022 as the favorites to win the NL East, just as the Yankees tend to do in the AL East, but big money, big personality players don’t always get the job done.

If a team like the Pirates isn’t going to compete for signing these big names, I’d advise using some of their own prospect capital and alarmingly low payroll to take advantage of the wreckage caused by the sudden spending surge.

The Mets could now easily move someone like Jeff McNeil, Dominic Smith, JD Davis, or even Robinson Cano. Even someone like the injured Joey Lucchesi could draw interest. The point is, just because you aren’t playing the same game doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of the game being played.

I’ve used the Mets here as an example, but big signings across the league by teams already largely considered to be in good shape can open doors if you’re willing to look for them, and it might just be the easiest way for Pittsburgh to acquire more MLB ready talent.

This has been mentioned in this space before, but when you’re a team who isn’t going to compete monetarily speaking, you can’t afford to miss a trick, so much like the AJ Burnett move way back when, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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