As Pirates general Ben Cherington watched the World Series in 2020, it wasn’t lost on him how the two teams got to that moment.
Sure, on a financial spreadsheet or a breakdown of bWAR ranking, the two teams were quite different. The Dodgers have the financial capability to warrant the phrase “luxury tax consideration” every year, while the Rays have to more closely tie dollars to wins with a smaller payroll. But both are executing on three stages Cherington sees as crucial to the development of a playoff contender.
“They’re both doing a great job identifying young players,” Cherington said. “They’re both doing a great job helping players improve. And when the time is right, they add players to the Major League team.
These are the clear road markers Cherington has identified: talent identification/acquisition, player improvement and impactful Major League acquisitions. As the full squad prepares for workouts in Bradenton, Fla., let’s take stock of where the Pirates are at on this journey.
The Pirates have made it clear that they are in the business of acquiring young talent. They shipped out Josh Bell, Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon this offseason for 11 prospects. Eight of those prospects instantly slotted into MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Prospects list for the club as of the 2020 rankings.
There are other Major League pieces who have come up in trade rumors, chief among them Adam Frazier. Cherington said he is keeping the phone on, but added there is “nothing on the horizon right now.” If some of the Major League players can rebound after a tough short season, it could provide more opportunities to acquire young talent at the Trade Deadline.
But there are two other big methods of talent acquisition which don’t require the same give and take as the trade market: The international market and the Draft.
The Pirates already handled most of their business in the first area as far as attainable talent this year. They signed the top international outfield prospect, Shalin Polanco, among the 15 players they signed on Jan. 15, the first day of the 2020-21 international signing period which was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In he and assistant general manager Steve Sanders’ first Draft, the Pirates selected Nick Gonzales with the No. 7 overall pick, and without having played a pro game, he’s a Top 100 prospect. Pittsburgh has the No. 1 overall pick this year, which -- needless to say -- is a humongous opportunity to grab an impact player.
The Pirates also were able to acquire two players on the club’s Top 30 Prospects list in Jose Soriano and Luis Oviedo.
This phase of the growth of a playoff contender is the one Cherington is still largely centered on. Despite the growing talent base he’s accumulated since he took over in 2019, he’s hungry for more.
“Whatever improvement we’ve seen in our overall organizational talent -- and I think we have seen some in the last year -- it’s not enough,” Cherington said. “We’ve got to keep going. We’ve got to be one of the stronger organizations just in terms of overall talent to give ourselves the best chance to win."
In another sense, however, the Pirates will enter the second phase at some point this season: player improvement. Of course, this is a highly general term. One could argue it means the sum of all the pieces in the organization. But put another way, it is the improvements with respect to Major League readiness, as that level is obviously the key to playoff contention.
Though many of the players the club has acquired last played at the lower levels in 2019, Cherington admitted it’s a little tough to determine right now which levels prospects will end up working at.
“I do think that this year it would be fair to say we should be a little bit more open-minded, just in terms of where players are,” Cherington said. “There may legitimately be players who have made substantive improvements that we don't fully realize yet until we get back with them in person.”
So say some of the top prospects projected to work at Double-A or Triple-A like Oneil Cruz, Cody Bolton or Max Kranick show up to camp and have made big gains. Suddenly, they would become callup candidates for at least the later portion of the year, getting Major League experience and creating a framework for improvement so they can be ready to contribute meaningfully in 2022.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility, according to Cherington. The last thing he wants to do is speed up player development under a relatively new system, especially when the organization lost a year of Minor League games. But he recognizes that a playoff-ready Pirates team that can begin the third phase -- impactful Major League acquisitions -- is in the organization’s hands, from the players to the farm system leaders.
“If we do a good job on those first two activities, which is what we’re pouring into right now, it’ll make it quicker,” Cherington said, “where it starts to make sense to invest more meaningful resources into bringing players back at the Major League level or in free agency.”
Cherington took notice of what the Padres did this offseason, getting a handful of impact players like Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Mark Melancon while reportedly signing Fernando Tatis Jr. to a major extension. But he also knows it took San Diego beginning in a similar spot as Pittsburgh right now, finding the best young talent and laying the path forward.
It’s not a clear and perfect path, but he knows it’s a crucial one to follow.
“We know there’s a lot of work to do,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy. In fact, it’s going to be hard. We ought to embrace that. We shouldn’t run from the hard, because nothing that’s worth pursuing is ever easy.”