Shortly after trading Josh Bell to the Nationals on Christmas Eve, general manager Ben Cherington made it clear that the Pirates’ focus is on the future. He acknowledged that the Bell deal, which brought back pitchers Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean, likely wouldn’t be the last Pirates-for-prospects deal of the offseason.
“In order to fill the talent base that’s big enough, deep enough, dynamic enough to win,” Cherington said at the time, “we just need to add more.”
They took another step in that direction on Tuesday, finalizing a trade that sent 2020 Opening Day starter Joe Musgrove to his hometown Padres in a three-way deal that netted Pittsburgh five prospects: outfielder Hudson Head (the Padres’ No. 7 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline), left-hander Omar Cruz (No. 17 in San Diego’s system), right-hander David Bednar and right-hander Drake Fellows, along with catcher/outfielder Endy Rodriguez, the Mets’ No. 14 prospect.
In the deal, New York acquired left-hander Joey Lucchesi from San Diego via Pittsburgh. The deal was first reported Monday night before being made official Tuesday.
While the Padres continue to build a roster that could challenge the Dodgers atop the National League this year, dropping Musgrove into a rotation that’s recently added Yu Darvish and Blake Snell, the Pirates continue to rebuild their farm system with hopes of contending years down the road.
“To win in Pittsburgh, we've got to keep building a base of talent and be committed to that, be aggressive about it,” Cherington said Tuesday during a Zoom call with reporters. “And when you do that through the Draft or international signings, it's all celebration you're bringing someone in the organization. When you do that through trades, obviously someone is leaving, so it's a slightly different kind of exercise emotionally. But nevertheless, we've got to be just as willing to do that as part of our job to build the talent base that's going to help us win here."
Pirates get: OF Hudson Head, RHP David Bednar, LHP Omar Cruz, RHP Drake Fellows (from the Padres) and C/OF Endy Rodriguez (from the Mets)
Padres get: RHP Joe Musgrove
Mets get: LHP Joey Lucchesi
What the Pirates got
Cherington said they were simply looking for the most valuable return available, and this package from the Padres and Mets “represented the best combination of upside and volume.” They got five prospects, with only the reliever Bednar ready to play in the Majors this year, and with that upside comes the degree of risk inherent in acquiring low-level prospects.
Head, 19, is the most highly regarded prospect in the deal and someone the Pirates have been monitoring for at least a year. A third-round Draft pick in 2019, the left-handed Head received a $3 million bonus to sign with the Padres and went on to hit .283/.383/.417 with 11 extra-base hits and three steals in 32 games for San Diego’s Rookie-level Arizona League affiliate. The Pirates were able to evaluate him last year based off his work at the Padres’ alternate training site and instructional league camp.
He is considered a potential five-tool prospect with a high ceiling and the ability to stay in center field long term, but like Yean and several other prospects acquired since Cherington took over, he is a long way away from the Majors.
“Excited about his upside. He's athletic. We think he has potential to help a team on all sides of the ball -- defense, baserunning, hitting, power potential,” Cherington said. “Excited to add him to a group of position-player prospects at the lower end of our Minor League [system].”
Cruz, 21, received a $100,000 bonus to sign out of Mexico in July 2017. The 6-foot, 200-pound lefty is not an overpowering pitcher, but scouts believe his three-pitch arsenal, command and what Cherington described as an “advanced” approach make him a potential back-end starter or better, if his velocity increases. Cruz posted a 2.73 ERA and 1.16 WHIP with 76 strikeouts and 19 walks in 56 innings over 12 appearances in 2019 between Class A Short-Season Tri-City and Class A Fort Wayne.
Bednar, 26, is a big league-ready right-hander from Pittsburgh. Taken by the Padres in the 35th round of the 2016 Draft out of Lafayette College, Bednar made his big league debut in 2019 and pitched four times last season. He was better in his 13-outing debut than his 6.55 ERA might indicate, as he allowed only three runs on seven hits and three walks while striking out 14 in 10 1/3 innings over his first 12 appearances before giving up five runs in a two-out appearance to end the year. Bednar was lights-out in the Minors, recording a 2.70 ERA and 1.17 WHIP while averaging nearly a strikeout and a half per inning over 159 appearances. He has a spot on the 40-man roster and will compete for a job in Pittsburgh’s bullpen during Spring Training, Cherington said.
The Padres selected Fellows, 22, in the sixth round of the 2019 Draft out of Vanderbilt University. He is not ranked among San Diego’s Top 30 Prospects, according to MLB Pipeline, and has not yet pitched professionally. He was MLB Pipeline’s 152nd-ranked prospect in the 2019 Draft class, having served as Vanderbilt’s No. 1 starter for two years while offering the upside of a back-of-the-rotation starter.
Finally, there’s Rodriguez, the 20-year-old switch-hitter who has played multiple positions since signing with the Mets for just $10,000 in July 2018. The Dominican native had a brief but excellent showing at the plate in 2019, hitting .294/.411/.510 with 15 walks and only 18 strikeouts in 31 games of Rookie-level ball. Cherington said the Pirates view him as a catcher and intend to develop him behind the plate, which immediately makes him the club’s highest-ranked catching prospect.
“Got really strong scouting reports on him on the defense. Switch-hitter. Makes contact. We think there's some power potential there. Good athlete,” Cherington said. “Feedback's been really strong, so I'm really excited to get to know Endy.”
What they gave up
Musgrove was one-fourth of the Pirates’ return for Gerrit Cole almost exactly three years ago. The 28-year-old right-hander posted a 4.23 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 325 1/3 innings over 59 outings for Pittsburgh the last three years, although San Diego gave up a haul of young talent due in part to Musgrove’s untapped potential and affordable deal. Musgrove’s 2021 salary was set at $4.45 million on Friday, and he’ll remain under club control for one more year after this season.
“I've gotten to know him now for a little over a year and really do admire him as a pitcher, as a teammate, as a person,” Cherington said. “Learned from him, rooting for him and wishing him the very best."
Musgrove’s track record and potential to take another step forward enticed several teams, as Cherington said the Pirates fielded interest “off and on for a while.” Nearly dealt to the Blue Jays last Aug. 31, Musgrove was flat-out dominant after returning from the injured list in September. He struck out 38 batters with only five walks and six runs allowed in 25 innings over five starts. In his last two outings, he rang up 21 strikeouts while pitching 13 shutout innings.
Trading Musgrove leaves the Pirates with a group of starters that includes Jameson Taillon, Mitch Keller, Steven Brault, Chad Kuhl, JT Brubaker, Cody Ponce and Crowe. Meanwhile, Musgrove is set to line up behind Dinelson Lamet, Darvish and Snell for his hometown team.
“It’s extremely exciting to be able to play in the city [where] I developed my love for the game,” Musgrove told MLB.com. “It’s always been a dream -- I’m sure for every player -- to get a chance to represent their city and play in their hometown, especially right now at a time where I feel like the Padres have never been better.”
How it fits their plan
When dealing Cole, former Pirates GM Neal Huntington acquired three players -- Musgrove, Colin Moran and Michael Feliz -- who were big league-ready and one (Jason Martin) who wasn’t far away. Cherington took a different approach in trading Musgrove, opting for the upside and risk that comes along with lower-level prospects. It’s an approach he’s taken consistently in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates have been reluctant to use the word “rebuild” when describing their plan, but the handful of deals they’ve made under Cherington demonstrate a clear focus on the future at the expense of the present. They appear to be willing to sacrifice short-term success to accumulate a big group of young prospects that could reach the Majors around 2023.
“There’s some guys on the team already that we envision part of that core of a winning team. Some of those guys are still developing, still improving,” Cherington said. “We think we have guys in our Minor League system now that can be part of that core. There may be players who aren’t with the Pirates yet. Of course, we’re going to have to add complementary players over time, too.
“What we’re focused on right now is being committed to adding young talent, talent that we think has the opportunity to improve and has the upside to help us win in the big leagues in any way we can. … We’re going to get to a time when our focus shifts, but we have to be really committed to building that talent base first.”
Four of the prospects acquired on Tuesday joined the Pirates’ Top 30 list, according to MLB Pipeline: Head at No. 6, Cruz at No. 18, Rodriguez at No. 20 and Bednar 30th. Cherington has acquired eight of the club’s Top 30 Prospects this offseason, with these four joining Crowe, Yean and Rule 5 Draft picks Luis Oviedo and Jose Soriano. Overall, 14 of the prospects on the Pirates’ Top 30 list have joined the organization since Cherington became GM.
“We think [the farm system has] improved. We’re excited about the players we’ve been able to add going back to last offseason,” Cherington said. “Improvement is partly adding, of course, and it’s partly developing and improving. We’ve got to be just as committed to both.”