PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates might have made their biggest move of the offseason when they sent Josh Bell to the Nationals for two pitching prospects, but it will not be their final trade.
Ben Cherington all but admitted that when he spoke after dealing Bell on Thursday afternoon, declining to make predictions but openly saying, "There will probably be more." In his second offseason as Pittsburgh’s general manager, Cherington is putting his focus on acquiring talent for the future and acknowledging that doing so will continue to pare away pieces of the Pirates’ Major League roster.
“That's the realization. That's where we are,” Cherington said. “We just need to continue to be aggressive and focused about adding talent."
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Let’s answer a few questions you might have about what this deal means for the Pirates moving forward.
Who might be next?
Cherington didn’t try to hide the fact that the Pirates have “had a lot of dialogue with teams about a lot of players across our roster.”
“Look, it’s no secret: There are guys that, if you’re a team that’s in a different position than we are, that they’re going to have interest in,” Cherington added. “We’ve had a lot of phone calls, and we’ll see where those lead, but I will just say that in order to accomplish our goals, which is again to build a winning team and sustain that in Pittsburgh, we’re going to need to continue to focus on accumulation of talent and then development of that talent. And that comes from all different avenues, but trade is one of them. And this is the time of the year where those conversations happen, so we’ll continue them."
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Right-hander Joe Musgrove and second baseman Adam Frazier are likely trade targets, with Musgrove presumably the more attractive of the two given his experience and upside. MLB.com’s Jon Morosi recently reported that Musgrove is drawing significant interest from a group of teams that includes the Angels, Blue Jays (who tried to acquire him at the Trade Deadline) and Red Sox.
Starter Jameson Taillon, who’s set to return from his second Tommy John surgery next year, has been drawing interest as well, according to sources, with the Yankees among the teams doing the most background work on him. They have a couple intriguing relievers, most notably Richard Rodríguez and Chris Stratton, and they’re likely getting calls on starters Steven Brault and Chad Kuhl as well.
Who’s on first? What about the DH?
Cherington said the Pirates have been following MLB’s guidance to proceed as if National League teams won’t have a designated hitter next season. That presented an obvious issue for Pittsburgh, because Bell and Colin Moran split their time between first base and the DH spot last season.
Cherington said the lack of a DH moving forward “really didn’t” have an impact on their decision to trade Bell, which was more about the long-term implications of adding talent to their system. But shipping out Bell does open the door for Moran, who hit .247/.325/.472 with 10 homers in 200 plate appearances this year, to be the starting first baseman in 2021.
“I don’t think we would make a trade with a player because of some other player, necessarily. But separate to this trade, yes, we’re very encouraged by what Colin did and certainly believe he can do a really good job if he’s getting a lot of at-bats at first base,” Cherington said. “We’re excited to see him build on 2020.”
What’s with all the right-handed pitching prospects?
The Pirates received two pitchers from the Nationals in return for Bell: right-handers Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean. They also acquired right-hander Brennan Malone from Arizona in the Starling Marte deal and drafted five straight right-handers after selecting Nick Gonzales in the first round of the 2020 MLB Draft.
The Pirates’ system is light on left-handed pitching prospects and even more so on catchers, but trying to trade based on projecting future needs would simply limit their options.
“The demographic will even out over time. I promise you we didn’t set out a year ago just to accumulate right-handed pitching. That’s nowhere written in our plan,” Cherington said. “We did set out a year ago to accumulate as much player talent as we can. It just so happens that the opportunities have been a lot of right-handed pitching. It’s just the way it’s fallen.
“I’m excited about that in the respect that, as we build that talent base and acquire those guys you’re talking about, I believe the Pirates can be a place where those guys can improve and flourish. The proof will be in the pudding. We have to continue to work really hard on that. Over time, the demographic thing will even out. It will be some left-handed pitching and plenty of position players -- I’m sure, too, that will come over time.”
When will the next step of the “build” begin?
Pirates fans can be understandably wary about promises of a brighter future. The club isn’t that far removed from a 20-year losing streak, and they’ve followed a three-year run of postseason appearances by posting losing seasons in 2016, ’17, ’19 and ’20. They developed stars like Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, Marte and Bell, and they’ve all been traded away over the last three years while payroll has dropped.
The Pirates have talked about “building” rather than “rebuilding,” but so far, they have been building up their system at the expense of their big league roster. That sounds like rebuilding. So, where is this all going?
Cherington noted that the Pirates have been working all offseason to evaluate just how far away they are from building a winning team. Whenever they feel they’re close to that point, you’ll start to see fewer moves like the Bell trade and more acquisitions focused on winning in the Majors.
What’s the timeframe? Will players like Ke'Bryan Hayes, Mitch Keller and Bryan Reynolds still be around at that point?
"We're going to work as hard as we can to get there as fast as we can. I don't know. I'm not good enough to know exactly when that arrives,” Cherington said. “What I can say is every day, we're going to keep focused on what we need to do to build a winning team, whether that's acquiring talent, developing talent, making changes to how we deploy talent, or help players get better.
“If we do that consistently enough every day, then we're going to get to that point where we feel like, OK, it's time to shift and look at transactions differently, look at adding in a different way, adding at the Major League level. We'll get to that. We're going to work as hard as we can to get to that as fast as we possibly can. I'm not going to give you a timeline because I don't have one. I think if you look at that historically across the league, it can happen at different paces. It really can. We do think there are players already on our team who are going to be a part of that, so there's a start. But we need a lot more."
Adam Berry covers the Rays for MLB.com and covered the Pirates from 2015-21. Follow him on Twitter @adamdberry.