Chances are Earned, Not Given

3-3-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter
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It hasn’t always been this way.

Early in a rebuild there tends to be very little prospect depth with a bunch of upside anywhere near the league, so you see opportunity tossed to guys like Phil Evans, or Will Craig, regardless of what they’ve done to earn it. The team needs warm bodies, and sometimes the reason a player gets an opportunity is simply because they’re next up.

That said, the Pirates have moved to a new stage of this effort, and the time for that sort of thinking is largely over. From here on out, it’ll be more about who is pushing, who has displayed an ability to improve an area of concern, maybe even how final the counter move will be play a factor.

If there’s one thing I hear just about all day every day from Pirates fans it’s usually “I love this guy, hope he gets a chance!”.

Insert whatever name you want there, Bae, Marcano, Nunez, Swaggerty, on and on. Then, getting a chance for many isn’t enough, it has to be at a certain spot on the field, or a specific place in the lineup.

Chances now though, well they come from a few key areas because the roster is largely full. Those areas are injury, trade, undeniable good performance, undeniable poor performance.

When you get to this point, decisions aren’t just about a prospect looking ready, no, now you have to take into account how you make room, who loses their job? If they lose their job, do you want to find a way to keep the player around? Are you entirely ready to move on? Don’t even need him as an insurance policy?

This is where the rubber hits the road for a general manager. You can fail at any one pit stop along the way, like identifying talent, drafting well, developing, all of it, but to me, nothing says more about the acumen of the decision makers than how they handle on boarding talent from top prospect to MLB regular.

Lets walk through some methods teams use to get a prospects feet wet, and the pitfalls and benefits they come with.

The Cup of Coffee

We see the Pirates do this a lot. It’s the September call up that typically precedes a guy being expected to make the leap in the following year, or the team being forced into a 40-man decision to protect the talent from the upcoming Rule 5 draft. A good example of this was Luis Ortiz, the Pirates knew they were going to protect their rocketing prospect this past winter, so why wait? They added him last year and got him a start. Now, Ortiz was so impressive he bought himself 3 more, that was clearly unexpected, but welcome.

That means Ortiz is expected to make the jump this year. The team has a few boxes they’ll want him to check and then it’ll be time to give him a bit of a run. Starting pitchers are by far one of the scariest onboarding processes for teams. The last thing you want to do is eat up a year or two of control ping ponging a guy back and forth, but you also have to walk the line on killing their confidence leaving them in a situation that they can’t handle.

Best case scenario, you have a short term injury, or demotion to the bullpen not due to overt depressing performance from a veteran that gives the prospect a crack he’s earned by performing at the lower level. If he does great, he maybe keeps the spot and pushes aside the vet, or, he goes back to work on something little and the team knows, OK, we can move on from this vet now, this guy is ready.

It’s a dance. For hitters, it’s just a bit less stressful. So long as the team feels they can give enough at bats, there isn’t much preventing them from trying.

Win the Job Out of Spring

This is one the Pirates don’t employ often, but they do allow it more than you think, just not with top prospects.

Just last season though, we saw them allow Diego Castillo to win the job out of Spring. Now, he had to be a special prospect. Had to play well to get the opportunity to be sure, but he had to be older, not considered a top guy who the team was concerned about losing a year of control over, and play the right positions.

Baseball has provided some incentives to change this thinking for top-top prospects, but not enough to convince teams that can’t afford to lose that free extra year. This is not Super-2 by the way, that’s a separate issue that makes this last even longer, and is entirely about money, whereas the initial weeks long delay is about the extra year of control.

I’d also add in here, you don’t find many teams claiming they’re “ready to win” who plan to start 2 or 3 rookies. There’s a reason for that of course, most rookies kinda stink.

So it leads teams to “block” their rookies more often than not. Basically give ’em someone to beat. Maybe that resistance is more like the tape across a finish line, maybe it’s a bit more but the concept is there.

The Super 2 Guys

It’s frustrating. No if and or buts, that said, every team in the league plays this game from time to time. Its all about money, not control.

That said, there aren’t many that come up where you can’t make some kind of reasonable argument that the player might not be ready. Last year this was Oneil Cruz, and I can honestly say, whatever the Pirates were waiting to see in AAA, he didn’t do it. Nothing measurably improved from the beginning of his AAA season to his call up. It was blatant. Had they improved his defense, ok, maybe I’ll give it to you, but I feel pretty comfortable saying he was the same player on his call up he’d have been if they let him break camp in 2022, and he’d be that much more experienced too.

Endy on the other hand this year, well, he legitimately hasn’t caught all that much, and I can see wanting him to get at least a little time to work on it. That said, Austin Hedges is who I’d want him learning from and he of course is an MLB player.

Endy is different because he could actually stand to learn some more, but even there, I’m giving the Pirates a lot of credit. Still, how they handle this isn’t 100% clear yet. Hedges is a brilliant defensive catcher, and Endy will certainly not be that from the jump. I feel if they don’t get him at least half a season WITH Hedges they’ve made a mistake.

Those are two examples, but it certainly doesn’t apply to all prospects. We talked about Ortiz already, but he’s a guy who could wind up getting Super 2 status, but unintentionally.

Too Many Dogs; Too Few Bones

The Pirates are largely there at a bunch of positions. Here’s where the GM has to be smart. The reality is, you aren’t going to treat everyone fairly. You aren’t going to make sure everyone gets some magic number of at bats or innings. At some point you’re going to have to trust the AAA numbers and give a guy a chance. And you have to know it’s not just a couple week audition, it legitimately should be a month or two.

If you really think something is there, you owe it to yourself to see.

Travis Swaggerty is a first round pick, 25 years old, tremendous defender who’s been injured and lost a season to COVID. In other words, being drafted out of college combined with those other factors, well, they’ve made him old for a prospect with very little MLB time through little fault of his own.

His AAA numbers aren’t all that impressive, but at 25, it’s getting to the point where he either takes his swing or maybe doesn’t get one here.

If he does well in Spring, the Pirates won’t care about Super 2, might not eve care about the extra year. As it sits now he’ll be what 31 when his control is over? Point is, if they want, they can pretty easily let him win in Spring, give him his shot early, and best case, he takes the ball and runs with it.

If he doesn’t, well the Pirates have 5 more behind him itching for a shot.

If you’re going to flush Swaggerty, you better be right.

Sounds super simplistic like that, but this is really where all this stuff comes to a focal point. When these guys reach the league, you better be sure your coaches are helping not hurting. You better make sure you have communicated a plan to make sure they get a decent shake. You better have a plan for if he fails, as well as if he succeeds.

This is stuff we can’t predict. We have yet to really see it play out aside from Ke’Bryan Hayes and Roansy. Roansy was just weird, starting pitchers especially don’t tend to come in like that, a total blessing. Hayes, well, he’s a no doubt MLB player, so technically a win, but he’s still got some work to do to make the team look like they handled his onboarding well.

Man, what a sport.

You could think all day about 2 fringe players on the roster before you get around to discussing a guy calling his shot with a 30/30 season.

Point is, seeing how Cherington handles this group of prospects is going to be fascinating, here’s hoping it’s smart too.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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