Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

10-24-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

Not that it should be a surprise, but the Pirates didn’t really do much since we last talked. Oh sure they went and claimed yet another waiver catcher, but nothing substantial was done. That doesn’t mean we have nothing to discuss, 2023 is arguably the most important season since 2018 as far as really putting our arms around where and when this thing is headed.

Let’s Go…

1. Astros and Phillies

So the World Series is set, the Houston Astros and the Philadelphia Phillies will square off for the 2022 title.

First, I completely didn’t see Philly getting here. I didn’t believe in the pitching enough to ever predict they’d win any of the series they were involved in, but they did it.

I say that because clearly my predictions haven’t become reality. That said, how can I not predict yet another outcome? Here’s the thing, I still haven’t learned my lesson, I simply can’t go Philly here either, the Astros are just way too complete, way too good for me to believe the Phillies have enough to get past them.

That said, they sure did catch fire in these playoffs, leaving a wake of other teams who feel the new system wasn’t fair to their regular season output behind them.

The Astros haven’t even lost yet.

This should be a fun series. Two really strong lineups and so long as games don’t get too deep two good pitching staffs. The Astros have an advantage with their bullpen and certainly experience. They’ve been here, and not just a little, they’ve lived in the playoffs for quite some time.

All complaints aside, the playoffs aren’t about the best team winning, they’re about the hottest team winning. Houston has a chance to make both true, but Philly is showing why you never laugh off fighting and getting in the Wild Card mix.

Basically, if you see the Wild Card within reach, well, reach, it just might mean a trip to the promised land.

2. Speaking of Not Reaching…

This Pirates team will improve in 2023. I’m not ready to make predictions as to how much, I’m not prepared to tell you whom will be most responsible for it, but I feel very confident that the team is largely beyond filling a roster with guys we know won’t matter.

The Pitching staff will be deeper, the position players will be more seasoned, and some of the bigger named prospects will start to arrive too. It’s set up for at least a measurable uptick ok?

Now my issue is pretty simple, I think they would be swimming out of their depth a bit to reach for a wildcard unless they add some more sure fire talent from the outside. A good starter, a couple nice and proven bullpen arms, a solid veteran catcher and preferably a bonafide first baseman and this team at the very least could boast a squad they believe could compete for .500 and conversely a wild card berth.

Problem is, I think they’ll stop short.

I feel confident they’ll go get a catcher, I even feel good they’ll get a starting pitcher. The other two spots, yeah, not so much.

First base is a thin market and the best fits I’m afraid will get much more than their estimates, on top of wanting a better, more probable, situation.

I can think of ways this team could overcome that. They could trade prospect depth to sure up some of these holes, or they could spend some money and fill them but Ben Cherington has shown little will to do so.

Trey Mancini makes a ton of sense for instance, but he’s going to make a ton of sense to a bunch of teams, and I’ve been around long enough to know this isn’t something the Pirates often win on. Now, that’s largely because they don’t even bother to play the game, but if I’m Mancini, after going through what he has, I’m not sure I’m looking to again be on a team dying for a Wild Card.

The last time the Pirates pried open a window, I felt a bit of spending could have cracked it open a year earlier, I feel the exact same right now. 2023 doesn’t have to not matter, and we aren’t talking a boatload of cast to change that designation. I’m talking a 65 million dollar payroll folks, not 150 million or something crazy. Just something that doesn’t force you to lean on rookies or wade through the waiver wire because you didn’t bother signing anyone qualified to start at a corner infield position.

If they enter 2023 with highly visible holes again, just know, it’s a choice.

3. Extension Season

Very early into 2022 we were treated to an extension announcement. Ke’Bryan Hayes was inked, and it felt like the beginning of locking up key players.

More weren’t in the cards last year as it turned out and now the Pirates face some key decisions on some guys. Let’s go through everyone they could and maybe should consider complete with pros and cons.

Mitch Keller – Finally! Finally Mitch Keller stepped up and showed something. It took 3 years, but now he’s entering his first year of arbitration and the Pirates have some decisions to make. At 27, the Pirates control his rights through 2025, but considering they haven’t really come out of this rebuild yet, he might be a competitive pitcher on a competitive team for all of 1 or 2 years before reaching free agency or worse, being moved in the middle of things really starting to look good. Some will say let him prove it’s for real, I say, if you want to wait and have him prove it, prepare to not be able to get this deal done. The Pirates have worked hard and so has Mitch to get him to this point, it’d be a shame to not see him produce right here.
My verdict: Extend Keller for 5 years buying out 2 years of his free agency.

Bryan Reynolds – He’s signed already for 2023 at 6.75 Million, then he has two more years of arbitration to follow. The Pirates own his rights through 2025 and he’ll be 31 when that’s up, but again, if you don’t want to be forced to move or lose your star outfielder in the middle of things getting good, the Pirates must act. Bryan wants to be here, but buying a year or two of free agency isn’t going to be nearly as appealing to him as it would have been prior to 2022. Now they’d have to pay and likely for a while if they want to keep him. I don’t see Bryan as a guy who’s going to fall off a cliff in his early 30’s, but he’s not going to want to extend here until say his age 33 season then hit free agency. To me the Pirates would have to be willing to extend themselves a bit.
My verdict: Extend Bryan through 2028 buying out 3 years of his free agency. Build in a mutual option if you must but make sure this guy is here when it matters, he’s suffered through a whole lot of the opposite on the way here.

David Bednar – He’ll enter his first year of arb in 2024 and under team control through 2026. We all saw how the bullpen fell apart when he went down with a back injury, but his loss wasn’t the only one they suffered so that’s not entirely fair or accurate. I’m not a huge fan of extending bullpen guys in general but this is an All Star closer and his arbitration is bound to get expensive and pretty quick providing he stays healthy.
My verdict: Nah, not yet, if ever. I love the guy but he’s already 28 and won’t hit free agency until he’s 32. I’d rather just ride him hard for 4 years and move on. A team that (even if self inflicted) doesn’t have a reasonable payroll can’t afford to have one of their bigger ones be a closer with a potentially nagging back issue.

Oneil Cruz – Honestly, it’s now or never. He’s 24, he’ll be 30 when he hits free agency and likely a monster with all of 5 or 6 places who can afford his services. OK, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself a bit here, but he’s already a good player and bound to get better. A team like Pittsburgh, well they need to harken back to Starling Marte. That’s a rare talent, multi tooled, and sure to price himself out of town real quick.
My verdict: Yes, and I’d do it right now while his progression is still at least a question. Give him a season to prove it and you might as well start bracing yourself for his eventual trade or contract expiration. Give him 8 or 9 years and call it a day. Front load it so he’s movable later if you must.

Roansy Contreras – Man this one is tough. He’s 23, he won’t be a free agent until he’s 29. He looked really good this year but is it just me or is it almost too good to be true? I think the Pirates would do well to extend a guy like this, but it’s a fine line between James MacDonald and Jameson Taillon. I think I’d be tempted to give him another year to marinate, but man, as with so many others on this list, that can work two ways.
My verdict: Yeaaaah, but I’m queasy about it. If you’re going to do it though, go big, a couple years of free agency isn’t going to do much more than save some money, at 23 I’d pop 9 or 10 on this kid, but I’ll be really honest, it wouldn’t take much to sway me back.

That’s what I got, I could make a case for JT Brubaker but I really doubt many of you would see the evil genius in it. I think he probably winds up being a bullpen arm but I believe in the stuff to the point I’d like to keep him around almost like a Brent Suter type who could start in a pinch or be a long man, maybe even back end type. A modest 5 year deal keeps a mid range piece here but I’m not down for the argument right now it’ll cause.

Keep in mind, they could do all of these and still not hit even 80 million this year. This is also how you’ll see the bulk of payroll increases take place here. If it’s truly different, these are the types of things they need to be knocking off the list.

4. Come to Think of It…

Know what just hit me like a Mack truck last week? Everything we’ve watched, we haven’t seen one Ben Cherington draft pick make the majors yet. Not one.

Don’t get me wrong, it’d be awful fast if we had, but as we talk about timelines and some even start saying it’s already taken too long, it never really crossed my mind until recently that we simply haven’t seen anything that he’s drafted yet.

That’s not to say sit down and shut up, it’s more to say damn, we really aren’t all that far into this are we? Nick Gonzales and Henry Davis are probably the first two we’ll see and legitimately that should be this year for both but it just struck me that all of this non-progress we’ve seen has been brought in via trade, predated Cherington or acquired in another manner.

All of which don’t represent the typical work product for full rebuilds. They should have done more to at least prop up what talent they did have, but almost without fail, none of these rebuilds are considered close to achieving relevance have done so without first seeing some drafted fruit from the architect.

Maybe that’s why I feel such a strong pull to see 2023 improve.

5. Did You Fall In Love?

One danger of watching prospects grow from the lowest levels of the game over the course of years is you have a tendency to fall head over heels in love with them as players. As a fan, that’s entirely expected, and even completely fine, but as with most positive Pirates events, it’s paired with pain.

Reality is going to smack some people right in the jaw. Most of these kids won’t make it.

Take Travis Swaggerty for example. He was drafted in 2018, many have watched him with baited breath hoping he would help their team win but reality is, he just might not be that good. I mean, heading into 2022 he had to be just about everyone’s first outfield call up, then he got passed up by at least 3, maybe even 4 if you wanna count Ji-hwan Bae.

He could catch fire, and have everything click next year, but it sure seems like he might just not make it.

I’m not telling anyone to stop being a fan of a player, or turn your back on them if you like, but I will say you have to have that in the back of your mind as you’re watching prospects, you simply have to learn it’s really hard to be a MLB player. Even guys like Yu Chang have gotten further than a ton of first round picks.

These sorts of observations made me think of a “seven commandments” if you will for prospect observation. Let me know what you think.

  1. Short Sample Size is Not Your Friend – Remember in the movie “Trouble with the Curve” how the big prospect hitter swung and missed like 3 times on a curve and all the execs started firing and promoting people? Yeah, movies aren’t real life peeps. You know exactly shit from a handful of at bats or a couple innings of work.
  2. You Don’t Know What Warrants a Promotion – Every single year someone hits 300 or has a 70/30 K to walk rate and can’t earn a promotion. The things that hold players back are often really small and almost always invisible to the viewing public. Let’s just say, these guys have been around and they know when success will translate vs when reality awaits them at the next level, and they’re right more often than not.
  3. Some Decisions Aren’t About the Player You’re Watching – A player may be working on learning the outfield or even being a DH more often than playing their position and it raises questions as to how good they are in the field, where they might play, and more. Sometimes though, it’s really more about wanting to get another player time at a spot. Keep in mind at any one time a minor league staff is teaching and trying to develop 30+ players, not everything is about your favorite.
  4. AA and AAA Are Considered Similar Planes – This is different for every organization in baseball, but largely the top two levels are less and less seen as more than a step away from MLB. When a top prospect starts in AA, it no longer means they are “behind” or “farther away” it just means they can get playing time there more likely.
  5. All Ballparks are Not Created Equal – You can’t just read box scores or stat sheets and think you know a player. Depending on where they play, the dimensions in ballparks or the wind tendencies in that area of the country could contribute negatively or positively. Greensboro is a great example. A ton of homeruns given up by a pitcher there or homeruns hit by a batter are very influenced by the extreme dimensions of that ballpark. Think MLB. Do you trust a pitcher who’s worked in Colorado and had a 4.50 ERA more than a guy who pitched in Detroit with a 4.50 ERA? Probably should, but it’s just like that.
  6. Prospect Rankings are Like Political Polls – Look long enough and you’ll find one you like better. There are countless outfits who rank prospects and decide who’s on the top 100, what really matters is how each player does individually. For instance, Termarr Johnson ranks above every other Pirates Prospect, and he literally just got here. In reality, he’s probably not even the team’s 25th best prospect if you factor in readiness for the gig. They’re a guide, nothing more.
  7. Trust People Who Actually Watch Them Play – These guys are good. They pick up on holes in swings, hitches in throwing motions, pitches that hang, velocity that can’t be controlled. If you really watch them and watch them enough that you can pick up on nuance you’ll see very quickly that anyone who writes about them nationally tends to lack that in person feel and it really matters. Take a guy like Liover Peguero, he made a ton of errors this year, but guys who watch him will tell you, the tools are there, the range is there, he rushes his throws on occasion and at the end of the day they feel pretty good about where he’s headed. Others will say he has X amount of errors and he stinks. That’s a gross oversimplification, but it’s also very true.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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