PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates have done everything they can to avoid calling their plan a “rebuild,” but there’s little doubt they are following the same path others recently traveled on their way to this year’s postseason.
The Padres and White Sox aggressively rebuilt around exciting young stars. The Marlins did the same, accelerating their timeline with savvy veteran additions. Few teams churn out young, competitive rosters on a budget like the Rays and the A’s. The Blue Jays built around a young core of position players, with more arms on the way. And the list goes on.
That’s the goal for the Pirates, and it’s become more apparent over the last year.
“You don't have to look too far around the league to see the paths that teams have taken to success, and it's usually built on acquiring and developing and integrating really good, young talent,” general manager Ben Cherington said last week. “That's what we've got to do, and I think that's an exciting thing to be a part of.”
The Pirates saw some young players flourish in the Majors this year, specifically rookie third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes. But after finishing 19-41 in this shortened season, Cherington clearly has a long way to go to build another postseason team. That will influence the Pirates’ activity this winter.
“I think we know that we have to get better. I think we are honest about where we are, areas where we need to improve on in order to start winning more games. That's where our focus is,” Cherington said. “We need to focus on that, and a big part of that will be not just adding players, young players and talent, but developing those players.”
Here are five questions facing the Pirates as their offseason begins.
1. Did this season affect their long-term plans?
Yes, Pittsburgh hoped to win more games, surprise people and snag a spot in the postseason. But this year was always about evaluation and development, and it was difficult to achieve even those goals given how unusual the season turned out to be.
For one, the Pirates had no Minor League season to develop their youngest players, although they were happy with the work some put in at their alternate training site and in instructional league workouts. They only had 60 games to evaluate their Major League roster, and that brief window was further limited by injuries, absences and uncharacteristic slumps. How much can they really take from this year, then?
Cherington has insisted that there are players in the organization who will be a part of Pittsburgh’s next contending team, for instance, but some of them struggled (Bryan Reynolds, Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker), didn’t play much (Mitch Keller) or didn’t play at all in the Minors (Oneil Cruz and Cody Bolton, among many others).
Players’ small-sample struggles likely won’t affect the Pirates’ long-term view of them, but might they be more likely to sign long-term deals -- like the ones Pittsburgh was mulling back in Spring Training -- amid all this uncertainty?
Furthermore, injuries and underperformance hampered what the Pirates could do at the Aug. 31 Trade Deadline. They couldn’t move right-handers Keone Kela or Chris Archer due to injuries, and there was no interest in lefty Derek Holland. Their biggest trade, from the perspective of adding young talent, came in January when they dealt outfielder Starling Marte to the D-backs for Liover Peguero, Brennan Malone and international spending capacity.
It wasn’t a lost year by any means. The Pirates’ struggles yielded the No. 1 overall Draft pick -- and a substantial bonus pool -- in next year’s Draft. They were extremely active in the international market and very pleased with their work there. Cherington had time to establish a culture, and manager Derek Shelton created a better atmosphere in the clubhouse.
But there wasn’t much visible progress the Pirates could point to on or off the field as proof that they’re on the right track. How can they change that?
2. How much trade activity will there be this offseason?
The Pirates only completed one deal in the leadup to the Trade Deadline, moving outfielder Jarrod Dyson to the White Sox for additional international spending space. That return was not insignificant, but it didn’t move the needle much. Might they cross the finish line on something bigger this winter?
There was interest in right-hander Joe Musgrove -- and nearly a completed deal with Toronto. Clubs had varying levels of interest in pitchers Richard Rodríguez, Chris Stratton, Chad Kuhl and others. Adam Frazier, who reestablished himself defensively as a super-utility man despite his struggles at the plate, was in some demand last December.
As quiet as they were this summer, it seems likely the Pirates will be busier on the trade front this offseason.
"I think we definitely have to be ready for opportunities, and we have to connect those opportunities back to what we are trying to do, which is build a winning team,” Cherington said. “What gives us the best chance to acquire the abundance of talent we need to build a winning team? So, we need to be absolutely prepared for that, those opportunities as they come.”
3. What’s the plan up the middle?
The Pirates have a starting catcher in Jacob Stallings, their team MVP this year, but they still need to find a long-term solution behind the plate. That will likely either come in the Draft or through a trade.
There’s more immediate uncertainty in the middle infield and in center field. The Pirates have options for 2021 -- Frazier, Tucker, Newman, Erik González -- but no sure things at second and shortstop. The same thing feels true in center with Reynolds, Tucker, Anthony Alford and prospect Jared Oliva.
The Pirates also have plenty of prospects up the middle, namely center fielder Travis Swaggerty and infielders Cruz, Peguero, Ji-Hwan Bae and first-round pick Nick Gonzales. How far away are they after spending the summer at Pittsburgh’s alternate training site camp?
4. Can their pitchers get -- and stay -- healthy?
Right-hander Jameson Taillon is on track to join the Pirates’ rotation next Opening Day, a huge addition on the mound and in the clubhouse, after recovering this year from his second Tommy John surgery. The bullpen should see the return of right-handers Michael Feliz, Clay Holmes, Nick Burdi and Kyle Crick.
What kind of impact can those pitchers make? How will their presence force the Bucs to shuffle their roster, especially with rotation candidates like Musgrove, Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, Trevor Williams, JT Brubaker and Cody Ponce?
And above all, how will the Pirates handle all those arms -- coming off a season when nobody came close to a typical year’s workload -- to keep them healthy?
5. Who will the “talent magnet” attract to fill out the front office?
The Pirates are in position to hire this offseason, a potentially advantageous situation as many other clubs have thinned out their baseball operations departments throughout the year.
These won’t be high-profile additions like last year’s hires of president Travis Williams, Cherington and Shelton. The Pirates are bringing back their entire coaching staff, too, unless bench coach Don Kelly lands a managerial job in Detroit or Boston. But the staffing decisions they make this offseason are no less important to the Pirates’ long-term plan of developing young talent.
Their most notable need is a new farm director to replace the reassigned Larry Broadway. Given the club’s focus on the future, it’s a critical role. So is the job of pitching coordinator, which was recently vacated by longtime staffer Scott Mitchell. Pittsburgh is also looking to replace much of its performance team and athletic training staff after enduring a bunch of injuries over the last few years.
One of the reasons owner Bob Nutting and Williams hired Cherington was his reputation as a “talent magnet,” someone who develops stars in the front office as much as he does on the field. Pittsburgh could use a few smart hires, especially on the player-development front, to find advantages where other clubs cannot.