PITTSBURGH -- After two months on the job, Pirates general manager Ben Cherington finally made his first big move.
The Pirates traded center fielder Starling Marte, arguably their second-best player of the past decade, to the D-backs on Monday and received two high-risk/high-reward prospects in shortstop Liover Peguero and right-hander Brennan Malone, along with $250,000 in additional international-spending capacity.
It’s a meaningful move, one that removes a major piece from the Pirates’ Major League team while injecting much-needed talent into their farm system. It’s the end of an era, as there are now no active Pirates who were on the roster for the 2013 National League Wild Card Game. It’s also our first chance to see how the Pirates will approach these moves under Cherington.
Let’s look at some of the ramifications and a few things we learned from Monday’s big move.
What does this tell us about Cherington?
Right off the bat, it tells us that Cherington is looking for high-upside players. Over the last week, Cherington has repeatedly referenced the Pirates’ need to take risks and make bets on players with high-end talent.
The Pirates fared pretty well when taking that approach in the past.
They traded Andrew McCutchen for a reliever (Kyle Crick) and a prospect who hadn’t reached Double-A, and they wound up with Bryan Reynolds and the international slot space that allowed them to sign prospect Ji-Hwan Bae. They traded two months of Tony Watson for a low-Minors infielder by the name of Oneil Cruz, now one of MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects. The most interesting player in the Jordan Luplow/Erik Gonzalez trade was probably Tahnaj Thomas, a high-ceiling pitching prospect in Pittsburgh’s system.
But the previous front office often gravitated toward high-floor players and occasionally came across as risk-averse. The Gerrit Cole return is probably the best example: Joe Musgrove, Colin Moran, Michael Feliz and Jason Martin have already reached the Majors. They made it to a level many prospects never do, but did Pittsburgh acquire a legitimate star for, at the time, its most valuable trade chip? Only if Musgrove takes a big step forward.
Every team needs star players to contend; you won’t find many division champions populated with only 2- and 3-WAR players. Small-market teams need star players who reach their potential before they reach free agency.
Consider this. The Pirates’ 98-win team in 2015 featured four players who posted 4-plus WAR, according to Baseball-Reference: Marte, McCutchen, Cole and Jung Ho Kang. Since then, they’ve had two 4-WAR players in four years: Marte in '16 and Jameson Taillon in ’18.
The Pirates need elite-level production from multiple players at the same time, and that means making upside plays on high-ceiling 19-year-olds like Peguero and Malone.
“If we look at how we get to a winning team, you’ve got to add up a lot of wins,” Cherington said. “To do that, generally, you need a group of 25-26 or 35 players, whatever, contributing to that. Then there’s going to be some smaller group of that performing at a much higher level. We just have to give ourselves some chances to get that kind of player.
“If we’re doing our jobs well enough, some of that will happen internally; some of that will happen because we can help players who are already here get to that higher level. That’s going to be a critical part of what we’re doing. But we’ve got to be willing to take some chances on that kind of player externally also.”
What will the Pirates' outfield look like this season?
It sounds like the Pirates’ next center fielder is not currently on their roster.
Asked about his plans for the outfield, Cherington said, “I think we’ll continue to look for opportunities to bring guys in, either a player or players. … We’ve talked to free agents. We’ve talked to teams about other trades. So we’ll continue to work on that, and I’d hope that we can add to that between now and Spring Training.”
Note that Cherington did not bring up Reynolds or Guillermo Heredia. At the Winter Meetings, Cherington said the Pirates were comfortable playing Reynolds in center field every day if necessary, and they signed Heredia to a Major League deal earlier this month. By the sound of it, Reynolds will stay in left field with Gregory Polanco in right, and the Pirates will find someone -- perhaps a free agent like Kevin Pillar, Juan Lagares or Cameron Maybin -- to handle center field in the short-term.
Eventually, the Pirates could fill that void with Reynolds; prospect Jared Oliva, who’s ticketed for Triple-A to start the season; or first-round Draft pick Travis Swaggerty, who should start the season in Double-A.
Does this mean more trades are coming?
Maybe, but it felt like this was always the one they needed to knock out before Spring Training.
Cherington and manager Derek Shelton have mentioned the need to evaluate their own players, essentially figuring out who will and won’t be a part of the core they build around, but it was clear that Marte would be a free agent by the time they’re realistically competitive again. He’s still a very good player, but this offseason probably represented the peak of Marte’s remaining value -- and that might not be the case for anybody else on the roster.
The Pirates' pitchers should be able to improve across the board under a new pitching coach, especially considering how many of them were injured last year. Josh Bell and Adam Frazier can display more consistency. Polanco’s health makes him a question mark.
And there are some players, Cherington said, who will still be on board when the Pirates expect to contend again. (That’s part of the reason he won’t use the word “rebuild.”) He wouldn’t set a timeline, but it’s fair to assume that group includes Reynolds, Mitch Keller, Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker, Ke’Bryan Hayes and so on.
Cherington made it sound like the Pirates aren’t done adding to their roster before Spring Training, but this might be their only major subtraction.
“I am hopeful that we’ll add to the group in some way before we get to Bradenton. I don’t anticipate anything happening in the other direction,” Cherington said. “We never say never. You have to keep your phone on, but I don’t anticipate anything happening between now and when we’re together in Bradenton.”
What does this mean for the payroll? What happens to Marte’s salary?
The Pirates’ projected Opening Day payroll is around $50 million -- as low as it’s been since 2012.
They sent the D-backs $1.5 million of Marte’s $11.5 million salary, and Cherington said the remainder of Marte’s salary “will be reallocated back into the team.” But he didn’t say that it will all go back into the 2020 Major League payroll. Ideally, it’ll be used to fortify their roster when they’re on the verge of contending again.
“We need to look opportunistically at when is the best time to put that money back into the team, and that’ll be done strictly through the lens of what gives us the best chance to win,” Cherington said. “There’s the ability to move that money back into the team at different points, depending on when the opportunities are, but certainly confident that it’ll be reallocated back into the team.”
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.