10-19-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter
It couldn’t possibly be more clear which of these two paths your Pittsburgh Pirates will pursue. Now, it’s a bit of a misnomer because of course everyone on the team could take a big jump and rookies who come up could of course burst on the scene as opposed to struggle mightily. That said, one is likely, the other isn’t, I think that’s fair to characterize it that way.
The argument you’ll typically get for getting better slowly tends to be about allowing plenty of room for young players to come up and get playing time. I’ll further add that roster spots become an issue as well, especially as your prospects creep closer and closer to making their debut or more accurately, get to the point where they have to be protected.
Get better now arguments are obvious, and let’s face it, not an argument in half of MLB’s markets. Fans want to win, I mean, does this really need explained?
Let’s use a few players to understand how different teams handle this.
Miguel Andujar had a terrific 2018 rookie campaign. Now, had he been a Pirates player even though he was injured his spot is still waiting for him when he gets right. Need proof? Ke’Bryan Hayes missed a big chunk of 2021, played far below his rookie precedent, and was signed to an 8 year extension before again getting injured and underwhelming at the plate in 2022.
The Yankees, continually in win now mode, have little time or patience to wait on a rookie, even a promising one. They filled the role, because even if Andujar is eventually going to be better than Clint Donaldson (debatable at best) he sure as hell wasn’t going to be better than him right now. I mean look how old Aaron Judge was before they let him come up and stick.
The team situation helps dictate this, and it’s the unspoken part of how the economic imbalance of MLB effects it’s partner teams unequally.
It’s not just want to, sometimes it’s about timing too. Let’s fast forward a bit. I want you to pretend it’s the offseason before 2025, the Pirates have a decent team put together with a bunch of 2nd and 3rd year guys, a few 5 and 6 year vets leading the charge, and some more promising rookies on the doorstep, maybe even Termarr Johnson is one of them. Now, a team like Pittsburgh will at least flirt with the idea of leaving a hole for Johnson, where the Yankees might just fill it and let Johnson keep toiling away in AAA. I’ll call back to this paragraph later so keep it in mind.
Now, you’re a Pirates fan, so you’ve been conditioned to think that’s perfectly right. Even if you expect your team to compete for the playoffs, you probably think they can’t “afford” to block someone like Johnson. Yankees fans on the other hand, well they just want their team to go get someone to strengthen the team and bluntly, they don’t care if they ever see that prospect. If that guy isn’t able to prove he’s a better player and beat out who the team bought, F him.
Thing is, the Yankees can afford to have that situation play out. They can have their stud prospect outperform some dude they signed for 3 years 33 million and just bench the guy. The Pirates, not so much. They’d have to find a way to move that player or wait for an injury.
This all sounds nuts. Try to win right? it’s hardly controversial.
Absolutely it shouldn’t be, but all this stuff we just thought through and more are on the mind of every small, or smaller market in the league.
Let’s take another player, Roberto Perez.
Why does he make so damn much sense to almost everyone universally? Well not my buddy James Littleton but I digress.
This is simple, he’s really good when he’s healthy. They have two top prospects who are catchers so should he not stay healthy it just greases the skids for the guy or guys they planned to supplant him anyhow. If they were to say go out and get Yasmani Grandal, well now you have an issue. If he stays healthy he’s going to block Endy or Hank and even if both of them force their way on the team, Grandal will minimally take the DH role from them.
That’s how a team like the Pirates thinks of things like this because of one simple fact, they can’t afford to pay bench guys quadruple what the starters make.
Bigger markets could have this exact situation play out, and they probably don’t care. If that top prospect is 27 when he debuts so what, if he simply never has a spot, so what. The assurance that right now is better, that’s all that matters.
Think about this, there’s a real conversation that Kevin Newman’s arbitration number of 2.8 million potentially being too much for a bench guy. I mean really think about that and apply it to all the upgrades you think they should make anywhere on the diamond. Do you think most teams are twisting themselves into pretzels trying to find a way to say keeping Diego Castillo or Tucupita Marcano would be better? One guy who’s at least proven he’s a Major League player, vs two guys who haven’t.
Being a better team right now, well there’s no conversation to be had right? I’m not saying Newman is great, but having him on your bench both as a glove and contact guy is a no brainer when those two are the choice to fill the role should the Pirates move on.
That’s if you aren’t thinking an overt upgrade is due for that role, which honestly you probably should be. But how can they? What about Nick Gonzales, Liover Peguero, Ji-hwan Bae? They can’t block all those sure fire superstars, he said with tongue firmly in cheek planted.
This is why the Pirates holes are so well defined, because we know damn well a team in this market, with this owner, and yes it’s time to start saying this GM too, aren’t going to fill spots that are likely to be occupied by a prospect before the All Star Game. First base they have room because the prospect pool backing it is murky and they have no MLB options that have experience. Catcher they simply have to find a placeholder. Starting pitching they need a vet if only to give them time to hold back prospects, but it also gives them something to sell as “for now”, and of course they’ll need some relief arms which will always be the case for the rest of time.
Remember that paragraph I said I’d call back to? Well, here it is. That paragraph right there is why they fear upgrading some of these positions right now. That decent team built with a bunch of 2nd and 3rd year players doesn’t develop if those players haven’t been able to play. In other words, if the Pirates in 2022 had Ben Gamel, Corey Dickerson, Bryan Reynolds and Tommy Pham, you probably haven’t seen Jack Suwinski, Cal Mitchell, Canaan Smith-Njigba, or anyone else you think has already been hard done by like Travis Swaggerty.
I can unequivocally tell you that outfield I proposed would have provided more wins in 2022, but I can also tell you they’d have learned nothing about any of those other guys. I’m not here to tell you that’s right or wrong, I’m simply here to say, willingness to “get better players” isn’t always created equal. Sometimes there are legitimate benefits to it. This is openly defined by many pundits as “not ready to compete” or “not trying to win”.
Fast forward to that mythical offseason of 2025 again for me, let’s say Jack Suwinski has simply not progressed. He’s still hitting 20 ish homeruns maybe striking out a bit less, but for the most part, he is what he is. Now if he’s the weak link, and the rest of the team looks strong, then, then you could see them decide an established “better player” brought in to “win now”. Even then, it’ll be one of those underwhelming names I mentioned, not Mookie Betts.
There are so many factors involved in building a team, and unfortunately the league dictates those factors matter more or less depending on what market your team plays in.
If a team like this does everything right, they can remain competitive for years, if they don’t they’ll never get good enough, grow frustrated and start over. Baked into that are scouting, coaching, luck, and smart money. All of that takes something super important, reality.
A team like this needs to look at a position like first base, realize they have nothing here, nothing sure fire coming, and shun the knee jerk reaction to fear filling the spot. A mistake teams like this often gravitate to though, they look at the team around that position and say to themselves, well, it’ll be ok, we aren’t where we want to be anywhere quite yet. It’s a mistake because it discounts how being horrible at that one spot can hurt everything else.
Every team in this league is a victim to their market size. Some teams rise above it by scheme and smarts, some rise above by shear guts to extend themselves in the hopes that glory will bring about loyalty. Others (like ours) sit back and rely on time, never acknowledging that time existed before they got here.
Building a base slowly is wise. Building on that foundation slowly typically only guarantees that your foundation will rot before you get the frame raised, and in a market like this, decorations are almost always not in the budget.
That’s why this is so hard, unlikely, and painstaking to watch. We’re right at the point where it’s pretty clear a foundation has been built, how fast they raise the walls from this point forward will dictate success or failure.