Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

1-10-21 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

Another week. And another wasted period of time for these two sides to start work on coming together. This is getting to be like starting foundation construction in Minnesota after Thanksgiving.

Before I dig in today, I’d like to invite all of you to join me and my podcast partner Jim Stamm on Saturday, January 22nd at 2 PM at the North Shore Tavern across from PNC Park for a live episode of the Pirates Fan Forum. We’ll have giveaways from the DK Pittsburgh Sports Store and a few other surprises. Hoping that just about everyone who shows up will be able to participate. For those who can’t make it, we’ll be live on Facebook and YouTube as well and we’ll read your comments and questions too. Hope to see you all there.

Now, Let’s dig in.

1. Pirates Getting International Talent

Since coming on board with the Pirates, Ben Cherington has focused on quality over quantity in the international market. Now, I get it, that sounds like a couple buzzwords that someone trying to tell you Ben is the best GM in baseball would say, but in this case, it’s provable.

During Neil Huntington’s regime the Pirates had success in this market as well, notably with guys like Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte. I also get most of you wouldn’t consider Polanco to be a success but when it comes to signing 16 year old kids, making the league and having success at any rate is a win.

On top of that it’s fair to say we haven’t and won’t see all of the seeds he planted bear fruit for another couple seasons, with guys like Rodolfo Castro, Ji-hwan Bae still in the mix we just don’t know what we’re going to see.

Neil had a different approach, he liked to grab quantity, and I can’t say it was a bad way to go. As I already mentioned, you’re often evaluating 16 year old kids, so on top of deciding if they have tools that will translate, you also have to assume and forecast physical growth.

This January 15th the Pirates will get another opportunity to add talent to the system and they have their sites set on two top 15 talents. First the number 12 available Yordany De Los Santos. Another super tall, Oneil Cruz type short stop prospect. And recently a 16 year old outfielder who was on track to sign with Tampa named Tony Blanco Jr. the 11th ranked prospect available. He’s 6’5″, 230 pounds with a power tool rated at 55.

There’s no guarantee Ben Cherington is even the GM when and if these guys make an impact on this ball club, but this remains one of the best ways a team can add elite talent to the system. To lend some perspective here, between this year and last, the Pirates will have signed the number 11 prospect Shalin Polanco, and an 11 plus 12 this year. Prior to Polanco, it had been more than a decade since they last inked a top 15 prospect.

It means nothing until it does, but it’s worth noting Juan Soto was 13th when signed by Washington. I’m not saying any of these guys will come close to what he has become but it stands to reason adding more like this at least gives you a chance to find someone like him.

Over the past few seasons, MLB has seen the median salary for players reduce. It’s one of several things that makes MLB an outlier as median salary has increased in the other big time North American sports year over year.

So why is this? Is it just owners being cheap?

Sure, a little, but I really think it has more to do with the overall belief that players peak performance years end earlier than they used to. We’re talking about a league that by in large no longer likes to sign 30+ year old free agents to any length of time.

Here’s the weird part though, the average age for a rookie in MLB going all the way back to 1900 sits around 24. So the cycle of development hasn’t skewed players into the show much faster than it ever has.

So, players are starting their MLB service time around the same age as always, but now by the time they reach free agency all but the rare talent is seen as a liability for a lengthy contract.

Of course salaries are down.

The numbers back up the sentiment for a players career arc, that’s hardly disputable, but it’s also hard to dispute the biggest money contracts are on the down side of that arc for most players.

Perhaps this is why getting young players paid quicker and reducing the amount of control franchises have of a player before free agency is such a crucial component of this CBA negotiation.

The average MLB career lasts 2.7 years, and I could see this figure decreasing if it’s no longer dirt cheap to play underperforming youngsters. Think about it, if Cole Tucker costs 1 million per, is he getting yet another chance this year? Maybe. This is why I like the idea of performance based increases for rookie deals prior to arbitration paired with removing the incentive for delaying call ups.

Every change to the system has cause and effect pinned to it, but this aspect is at the heart of many issues on the table.

3. Is There Any Hope in 2022?

Hope is a funny thing. It means different things to different people. For instance, I hope as 2022 wraps up (when and if it starts) with the Pirates having 7-8 players considered to be part of the solution already embarked on their MLB journey.

To most that’s not going to be in the ballpark, I get that.

Most people are going to say .500 or the vague “competitive” wish. To me, I’m all about 2022 providing answers and eliminating guys who have none to give.

I hope by the end of 2022 we have answers to these questions and I’ll be happy.

  1. Is Mitch Keller an MLB starter?
  2. Can Oneil Cruz actually handle the SS position?
  3. Was Ke’Bryan Hayes a case of just being injured last season?
  4. Will Derek Shelton start managing to win instead of managing to evaluate?
  5. Do they have even one answer in the crop of outfielders coming up?

Get me answers there and I’ll head into 2023 feeling on track to make some noise. The record should improve too mind you, but I’ll keep that in the nice to have category for now, noting if they answer all those questions, a record improvement is sure to tag along.

4. Expanded Playoffs and the Lure of Faux Parity

My wife was out cold. Both cats crashed in their little beds too. There I was, laying in bed at 12:15AM watching two teams I couldn’t care less about, praying they somehow didn’t end in a tie so my team could sneak in to the very last spot of an expanded playoff field.

I know a bunch of you were in the same boat last night as we all thought the Steelers had the hard part of their formula knocked out by 4:30PM.

Here’s the thing though, nobody believes this is more than what it is, one more game.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they’re in, proud even, but I’m under no illusion they’re going to the Super Bowl.

MLB will most likely come back with expanded playoffs themselves this year once they finally get a new CBA in place, and it might very well make for more teams watching games they couldn’t care less about, hoping and praying. It may lead to more teams feeling they have a shot come August. It may even reduce the number of teams willing to call themselves sellers at the deadline which should delight Mr. Boras.

What it won’t do is create real parity.

The teams likely to win it all, will remain the teams likely to win it all. It’ll just give them one more modest hurdle on the way most of the time. I guess as a Pirates fan we should try to look at what it could mean for us.

Simplistically put, it probably adds a year on either end of a competitive window. If it’s done with another one game win or go home scenario it might actually get in the way.

All this to say, I’m fine with playoffs expanding, but don’t fool yourself into thinking MLB can throw their hands in the air and claim they’ve fixed things. The potential spread between top and bottom payroll if playoffs were expanded last season is still north of 100 million.

5. An Uncomfortable Truth

There is one thing that is simply unavoidable in today’s society and it may wind up playing a role in the CBA negotiations. COVID.

It feels like society is starting to swing to the we have to live with this, way of thinking, and without inviting everyone to turn this into a political discussion it’s hard to discuss baseball getting back on the field without thinking about the fact they’ll also have to likely address how protocols are implemented as well.

I’d love to think it’ll be over by then, but I’m old enough to remember when two weeks was supposed to be enough to stop this thing from hurting most of us. I don’t blame anyone for not knowing how to handle it, or even for the ever changing of requirements but something this big won’t get done without this issue coming up.

Even if I avoid the temptation to claim some people will use this issue to their advantage it’s an issue they’ll have to deal with. Players openly didn’t like the protocols as they were enforced or implemented when the league started back up in 2020 or how it evolved in 2021, so my gut tells me they aren’t going to just head into 2022 with a new CBA that allows Rob Manfred to just dictate terms on something that can literally prevent guys from getting on the field.

For instance, other sports dealing with this on the fly have navigated the situation as best they could. The NHL shut down for a couple weeks and they still have problems with Canadian teams playing and travelling across the border. The NBA has some notable holdouts on getting vaccination, and even that is dependent on the city they play in. The NFL has adjusted their testing requirements and avoided an overt mandate. Bottom line, if you think MLB is going to come back and not have answers for how they’re moving forward, you aren’t paying attention.

These are two sides who love to play the PR game too, so picture one side saying the other doesn’t care about their health, or cares too much.

It’s just another ingredient in this toxic soup that neither side has bothered to even stir yet.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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