PITTSBURGH -- The storyline might seem familiar.
Two years ago, the Pirates were a month removed from trading Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen. They were about to embark on an 82-win season, a winning record but not good enough for October, and only one national baseball reporter stopped by Pirate City that spring. The result was this USA Today headline: “Pirates insist they are not tanking: ‘It’s just not true.’”
Pittsburgh brought in a new leadership group this offseason after the club -- which, indeed, was not tanking in 2018 -- bottomed out with 93 losses last year. And once again, the Pirates are entering Spring Training at odds with the widely held perception of their offseason activity. Maybe you’ll see a similar headline later this month.
Seemingly every time he’s spoken since taking over as general manager in November, Ben Cherington has rejected the idea that the Pirates need (or will participate in) a full-scale teardown-and-rebuild. He hasn’t laid out a timetable or a bullet-point plan for what comes next, but he articulated his view during a recent appearance on MLB Network Radio.
“The way I look at it, the way we’re looking at it -- and I really believe this -- is there’s a group of young players here who are either already on the team or close to being on the team that we truly believe will be part of our next winning team. So our focus is really to build with that group,” Cherington said. “That’s going to require making additions over time. It’s definitely going to require us helping our current group of players reach another level of performance. But we really do believe there’s a group here we can grow with.
“Directionally, we’re really thinking about it as a build with the current group as opposed to taking a different direction and starting that process later on. We look at it more of a straight march toward winning around the current group that we have.”
Note that it’s a “march toward winning.” Whether they say it or not, the Pirates wouldn’t have traded center fielder Starling Marte to the D-backs for two low-level, high-ceiling prospects if they realistically viewed themselves as capable of contending in the National League Central this year. If they thought they were only a couple moves away, they might have accepted an offer with more immediate, but lower-upside, Major League-ready talent.
But Marte was the only notable player dealt by Cherington during his first offseason in charge. If the plan was to immediately strip Pittsburgh’s roster down to the studs, he might have more seriously considered offers for in-demand players like Joe Musgrove and Adam Frazier.
In a statement announcing the Marte trade, Cherington said, “We have a foundation of talent in Pittsburgh and in our system that we feel will be a key part of our success. We also know that we need more of it if we are going to realistically be able to compete deep into September and October.”
Those are not the words of a GM forecasting an immediate return to the postseason. But they don’t necessarily sound like the beginning of a traditional five-year rebuild, either. Cherington’s plan appears to be more of a gradual “build” than a “rebuild,” in part because of what he’s inherited.
Typically, a club in need of rebuilding has emptied its farm system to prop open a window of contention. Pittsburgh’s Minor League system hasn’t produced enough in recent years, the primary reason Cherington was hired to replace Neal Huntington, but there is nonetheless a baseline of young talent for Cherington to “grow with,” as he put it.
Cherington has said there are players on the roster who will be part of the club’s core going forward. That group almost certainly includes second-year outfielder Bryan Reynolds, shortstop Kevin Newman, infielder Cole Tucker, third-base prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes and top pitching prospect Mitch Keller.
They have interesting upper-level prospects a year or two away from Pittsburgh, including shortstop Oneil Cruz, starter Cody Bolton and outfielder Jared Oliva. There’s a wave of intriguing pitching prospects in the lower Minors, led by first-round pick Quinn Priester and the newly acquired Brennan Malone, a group that also includes Tahnaj Thomas, Braxton Aschraft and Steven Jennings. They could all reach the Majors by 2023, when Reynolds and Co. will still be under club control.
The Pirates don’t have any big contracts to shed, either -- another element of typical teardowns. With Felipe Vázquez imprisoned and inactive, they have one player with a guaranteed contract for 2021: Gregory Polanco, who will be due $11 million. Without gutting the roster, Cherington should have freedom and flexibility to build up Pittsburgh’s roster -- and make the additions he mentioned -- as long as ownership is willing to eventually increase the club’s shrinking payroll.
The more immediate question is where Josh Bell fits in all of this. The All-Star first baseman is under club control through the 2022 season, which is also the last arbitration-eligible year for players like Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, Chad Kuhl, Musgrove and Frazier. Some of those players could be dealt. Some could remain to bridge the gap between this core and the prospects mentioned previously.
By the end of the season, we should have a better idea of where the Pirates stand. Are they a long way and a long time from legitimately contending? Or will they do enough to encourage Cherington’s optimism that a full-scale rebuild isn’t necessary?