Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

12-12-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

Prediction becomes religion if you aren’t careful.

You lay something out there and then sometimes you feel compelled to find ways to make every nugget of news fit your initial shot at it. This happens for just about every story that we follow year after year.

So and so is not good enough! Now the job is clear, prove yourself right. The dude hits a homerun, you talk about how many ballparks it wouldn’t be out. Guy makes a good play, make sure nobody forgets the bad one.

Build in plenty of escape hatches for yourself. Make sure you leave ways to worm your way around being wrong, instead, make the narrative that something completely unexpected happened and you are “thrilled” about it, but also, “everyone” missed it.

Rarely do you see anyone admit they were wrong.

Prediction is a big part of the fun when it comes to sports, but it shouldn’t become everything you are. In fact, instead of admitting you’re wrong eventually, perhaps it would be wise to simply admit up front there are multiple ways a thing could develop.

I’m not just talking about journalists here or bloggers, I’m talking normal everyday fans. When you marry a concept and can’t let it go, all it does is cloud your judgement on everything else. When you’re marrying something like how a 19 year old is going to evolve, when he’s going to get here, where he’s going to play and who he’s better than, inevitably you’re going to get forced into creating reasons you were wrong, and most of the time, it’ll be by blaming others.

Baseball is too hard for absolutes. Soften your stance and be open to dialog and freedom of thought.

Let’s do this.

1. Painted Into a Corner

When you have a very specific need as a baseball GM, you know you’re in dangerous territory. Teams aren’t stupid, they know what you need before you even sit down to talk, and vice versa. Teams typically know who is and isn’t on the table before sitting down too. At least who’s realistic.

That’s for trades, but agents also aren’t dumb, they know the Pirates for instance don’t have any left handed starting pitching, and when you take a specific need like that and amplify it by having it be a thin position on the market, you aren’t going to find it cheap.

Take a guy like Sean Manaea, who just signed with the Giants for 2 years and 25 million.

He’s a lefty starter who struggled last year but has a decent track record. Honestly a perfect target for the Pirates, and even for them should have been in the target spending zone too.

Every guy like this who comes off the board makes this job even harder.

When the Pirates jumped all over first base and made several moves and signings to address it for 2023, I understood many being underwhelmed with the names, but I was encouraged that they didn’t wait for the market to pin them into choices they didn’t want to make.

I hoped that would lead to doing much the same at catcher and starting pitcher. The free agent board is rarely going to be a place the Pirates thrive, so when you have little choice but to play in it, jump in early, overpay someone before the market starts to set itself and get out before most of the big dominoes have started to fall.

Once guys like Manaea are the “big fish” the Pirates are all but doomed. Had they jumped on this when there were still 5 or 6 comparable options, chances are they could snag one.

Now you have to wonder if they’ll manage to grab one at all, and if they do, their sights likely need to be on a Ryan Yarbrough type, who most in the league see as an iffy starter if not fully bullpen option at this point.

This team has many issues of course, but one they could control is to stop having a crisis of conviction every time they have to spend a dollar. It’s like I tell my wife sometimes, if ten dollars is an amount of money you even bother thinking about, COSTCO isn’t for you. Well, if a million here or there, an extra year once in a while, is something you consider consequential, good luck on the free agent market.

2. Pitch and Evolve

Despite my belief that this team would be doing less than they should if they happen to not snag a lefty starter, I really do like where they are with the overall staff.

First, the team won’t be quite as hamstrung by the innings restrictions that were a constant theme in 2022. I’d say every team will be free of that, but the Pirates made it even more restrictive last season than their competitors by in large.

I complained quite a bit about this last year, but as I discussed in the open, we must be free to continue taking a fresh look and while I still feel they should and could have used their starters better I can’t deny they were by far one of the healthiest starting groups in the league. Now you could argue that’s like buying a bottle of STP for your 1987 Datsun hoping the black smoke clears enough to pass inspection, but regardless they kept them on the road.

That’s not a small thing. Toward the end of the season you saw JT Brubaker start to break down and being one of the very few who wasn’t severely limited on innings, that makes sense. Zach Thompson got nicked up in the middle of the season and finished the season a bit less than the best version of himself, but aside from that, they stayed out of the training room.

Next season the Pirates plan to open up the availability more, and here’s the thing, that’s going to lead to needing depth. Finally they have some ready options.

As we sit here Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, JT Brubaker, Zach Thompson, Bryse Wilson, Vince Velasquez, Johan Oviedo, and Luis Ortiz are all already there with MLB starting experience. I may not like all those names, but knowing they have 8 guys to fill what amounts to 4 spots at the beginning of the season is comforting. I still hope they sign another as I mentioned, but I digress. The club hasn’t stated their intentions with Velasquez yet, but based on what they paid him vs what they paid Quintana and Anderson, the writing is in my opinion sadly on the wall.

Behind them they have Mike Burrows, Quinn Priester, Cody Bolton and those are just the ones I really believe could contribute here in December.

They’ve finally gotten to the point where they have some depth, and I think that will pair nicely with them loosening the restraints a bit.

The bullpen had it’s own issues last year, but killing them in April, May and June made for a desperate July, August and September. Depth again will play a role.

Don’t get me wrong, there are guys that simply aren’t going to be easily replaced. If Bednar can’t stay healthy in 2023, well, that’s not great. Mitch Keller or Roansy, yeah, not going to recover easily there. Every team can say things like that. But when you have legitimate options for your 3-5 starters, and legitimate fill ins for your 1-6 bullpen options, you are bound to be better off than fishing on the waiver wire for someone who can give you innings down the stretch.

It’s a better situation, even if the results are still to be seen.

3. Things the Pirates Simply MUST See in 2023

The Bucs accomplished more than just stinking enough to get into the top of the draft lottery last season. They also managed to debut and give opportunity to a host of young players setting up 2023 for most of them to feel they have a really good chance to make the club and entrench themselves as MLB players.

Guys like Jack Suwinski, Roansy Contreras, Oneil Cruz, Cal Mitchell, Rodolfo Castro, Diego Castillo, Tucupita Marcano and more will all draw on that experience.

This year, the Pirates have to get this done for even more. Players like Mike Burrows, Quinn Priester, Cody Bolton, Blake Cederlind, Nick Gonzales, Liover Peguero, Endy Rodriguez, Henry Davis, Travis Swaggerty, Canaan Smith-Njigba, and again, more, should all get time to step in and step up.

This is healthy, and this group is much more high profile than the last, save Contreras and Cruz.

This is how these things happen. Take all the jaded looks at manipulating players out of the equation for a moment. Not because it doesn’t matter, instead because it’s unimportant to all but maybe one or two on that list. Rookies should be sprinkled in, not penciled in and counted on when at all possible.

I can tell you right this second, I truly believe Mike Burrows to have a better shot at being a good starter in MLB this year than I do Vince Velasquez. But there is nothing wrong with making both prove that out. For one thing, Vince could just keep the seat warm and transition to the pen, and for another, Burrows didn’t face much AAA competition yet and he didn’t exactly light up the stat sheet when he did. There is a difference between believing in a kid and counting on a kid.

That said, if we get to say August and Burrows hasn’t debuted yet, the Pirates are wasting an opportunity to get his feet wet.

One thing that nobody has truly found a way around in MLB, at some point, you’re going to have to let a rookie be a rookie. You have to accept the flaws and absorb the mistakes. Building out healthy safety nets for that process is important and something the Pirates haven’t done well recently.

Safety nets like Josh VanMeter aren’t going to provide the resistance needed to truly make a kid or team feel safe. Safety nets like Velasquez, well, maybe both entities feel a little less pressure. A real MLB pitcher is there and even if his ceiling is clearly defined and it’s far lower than Burrows, this gives you room to maneuver just in case the floor shows up instead.

Most of this list will find a way onto the roster this year in some form or fashion, and that’s going to open the door for moving on from even more guys that open the season with the big club.

Maybe Castro doesn’t take a step toward consistency. That could open a door for Gonzales and push Castro to the bench. Perhaps Castro kills it and that makes the Pirates consider moving Gonzales to the outfield.

Cruz could show SS simply can’t be his spot. That could open a door for Peguero. Maybe he shows he’s learned to control his fastball over to first and the Pirates consider alternate places to use Peggy.

This stuff is much more fun when we’re talking about prospects coming up because they’re ready instead of coming up because the team is desperate for proof the system is working.

As prospects do make their way to the club, some of these first rounders and highly touted guys rightly should wrestle jobs away from some of these players like Castillo and Mitchell if they don’t step up themselves. Throughout this process, I’m not saying you should stay reserved and not fall for a rookie, but when the system is where it is currently, realize that there simply isn’t room for all of them.

Some guys will get held back, others will seemingly jump over their teammates. This isn’t something we’ve seen around here often, not even when the team was good in the mid 2010’s. Prospects came up and worked out to be sure, but they didn’t have a glut of others pushing beyond that.

Jordy Mercer for instance was a fine player, good shortstop, decent all around. A for sure MLB player, and the Pirates did well to develop him into what he was.

Today’s team isn’t set up to allow that to happen. If Jordy Mercer is in the 2022 wave, he’s instantly pushed for playing time by the 2023 wave.

Josh Harrison probably has 4 or 5 fighting for super utility if he were transported to today’s roster.

That’s how you wind up with a better roster, and how you develop it internally.

You might lose a guy who legitimately has more upside yet, but it’s hard to argue if he’s replaced by someone with a higher ceiling.

Manage it poorly and you become the 2022 White Sox. Manage it well and you might just be the 2015 Royals dream.

Bottom line, the shuffling and trading isn’t over, nor should it be. Walking the balance beam of diagnosing what you have versus seeing the alternatives is a really hard thing to do. Most teams don’t debut 8-10 rookies in one campaign, this will be the last year the Pirates do in this cycle. After this it becomes a bit tighter, and the prospects have to show a bit more to get a crack.

4. About Some of Those 2022 Rookies

Some of the most interesting things to watch will be the evolution of those 2022 rookies. I wrote about Jack Suwinski on Sunday and as we build toward Spring Training this year I’ll be hitting all of them. Oneil Cruz, Roansy, Castro, Castillo, the list goes on and on. I think it’s important to remind ourselves of what they’ve already accomplished, things they overcame and what they still have to face.

Sometimes this stuff gets boiled down to “sophomore slump” type stuff, but if you really strive to understand what you’ve already seen, you find the sophomore slump is almost always a lot more about the league now knowing who the hell you are, and what you do and don’t do well.

I’m not going to try to write one here, I’m looking deeper than that, but suffice to say, almost everyone has warts. Those can be dealt with, but they can also be exposed.

This fact is extra important based on where the Bucs are. Like I discussed in point number 3 today, the Pirates have a glut of young talent poised to make their way to MLB during 2023 and they must be careful to understand and recognize that second year syndrome is ongoing even while others are coming up looking like they’re simply superior.

That might wind up being true, but those same players will be experiencing that very same phenomena next year, so it sure would be nice if you haven’t tossed aside maturing talent for fools gold when they do.

Man this building stuff is hard huh? It takes legitimately brilliant people and makes them look like drooling mouth breathers every single year.

Add in extra difficulty by openly remaking your entire system from a coaching, scouting and analytics point of view and you lose the perspective and trust that ordinarily would help guide you toward making informed decisions and you have a very blurry view of the everyday difficulties of building a team in the way the Pirates have chosen to pursue.

Now be afraid to spend on veterans when the need arises and you can just about forget success.

Here’s hoping they figure out that last part and pretty damn quick.

5. Payroll is Going Up?

I was a bit surprised to see Ben Cherington offer this up at the Winter Meetings.

First of all, it’s not typical for him to address payroll in even that straight a manner. Second, I’m not sure I see it unless they do something really out of character and soon.

We all know they have to get a catcher but if that’s over 5 million I’d be shocked, and I’ll go so far as to say even if they get two I’d be taken aback if the total spend was more than that.

If they get a starting pitcher, which I’ll openly say they should, again, I’d be shocked if they spent even 10 million there.

This made me feel they must be working on or at least considering locking up someone.

Take off your Reynolds hat for a moment. I say that because even if the Pirates want to do that, we simply can’t assume Cherington is so sure he’ll get it done that he’d factor it into a statement.

The opening day roster last year was reportedly around 60 million according to Pirates Prospects, and Spotrac has them around 61 million. Trust me, Ethan at PP has this closer I’d wager.

Right now Spotrac has their estimated payroll at close to 53 million so there is work to do.

Add in all the benefits and odds and ends and last year it was somewhere around 73 million. This year is projected to be just around the same.

Point is, if they really want to make the payroll grow they’re going to have to pay someone who wasn’t scheduled to get paid, or bring in someone from the outside and pay them.

Again, when a GM says something and disproving it is as black and white as you said this and then instead this is what happened, well, trust me, they don’t say it. Expect payroll to go up.

Thing is, if I’m the Pirates I have a couple things I’m prioritizing here. Reynolds, sure, I’d love that, but again I’m taking off the Reynolds hat for this talk.

Let’s get Cruz extended, if he’s open to it, it’ll be right now. He’s got a family, and waiting 2 more years before really making bank isn’t fun when trying to feed your kids. I’d approach him now and offer him something even if just to get the dialog going. Next, I’d hit up Mitch Keller, you worked hard to help him overcome his struggles, and to nobody’s benefit it took until he reached arbitration. Don’t let someone else benefit from what you’ve developed, lock him up for a little while, if he one day is your number 3 or 4, great, you’ll need that too and look at the market, do you ever see yourselves playing there?

I’d also see if I could get JT Brubaker to take a modest deal. Something in the 4-5 million per range. Something that allows him to be a starter if he blossoms or move to the pen if he doesn’t. Either way, I want a guy who cared so much in a 100 loss season as to work his ass off to return from the IL just to make one more start down the stretch. That’s a ball player, and an arm I want around no matter what capacity he fills best in the future.

I think you could get all of this done and still not crack 100 million this year. If I’m the Pirates, I structure these deals to cost more up front than I need them to, if only to make them more affordable and provide, gulp, flexibility later.

This is a team that could easily start to change public perception, if only they’d open their eyes and minds to how very little it would take to do so.

And before you attack me for why no Roansy, well, I want to see a little more. That might be foolish, but I saw some things toward the end of the year, and I need to see why they happened. Tired or scouted? Let me see in 2023.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

One thought on “Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

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