Within the last month, the Pirates have traded away an All-Star slugger and their most recent Opening Day starter. They’re still not saying the word "rebuild," but there was another phrase used by general manager Ben Cherington on Tuesday that encapsulated what the Pirates’ baseball operations department will continue to prioritize for the foreseeable future: “Build the talent base that's going to help us win here."
By parting with Josh Bell and Joe Musgrove, and Starling Marte a year ago, the Pirates have set a clear direction rather than trying to keep one eye on the present and one on the future, as they did for much of the last five years. That course won’t lead to a lot of wins in the Majors this year or maybe even next year, but there is a plan in place.
“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, whether that’s trade, free agency, international signing, the Draft,” Cherington said. “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.”
Pittsburgh hopes the short-term step back at PNC Park will be buoyed somewhat by a full season of Ke'Bryan Hayes and Mitch Keller, a rebound from Bryan Reynolds and by the emergence of other young players. More importantly, they hope to see progress in the Minor Leagues from a farm system that seems to grow better and deeper every time you look at their list of top prospects.
But they’re clearly not done yet. And neither am I, although the Musgrove news marked the beginning of what could be an eventful final two weeks minding the store here on pirates.com. So, let’s get into four things I’m thinking could come next now that Musgrove has been traded to his hometown team.
1. More trades
OK, it’s not a bold prediction to say the team trading established players might keep doing so. But now that the offseason activity has finally picked up, it’s reasonable to think clubs will continue to be aggressive in the run-up to Spring Training. Cherington said the Pirates will “stay ready” for potential trades while also looking to make acquisitions.
Taillon, 29, sat out all of last season while recovering from his second Tommy John surgery and revamping his mechanics. He’s throwing bullpen sessions now and, by all accounts, looks great. The only two years we’ve seen Taillon healthy and cancer-free in the Majors, he posted 2.4 WAR in 18 starts (2016) and 4.9 WAR in 32 starts (2018). Combine that potential with his $2.25 million salary, and it’s no wonder that teams like the Yankees and Rays have been looking into his availability. There’s plenty of risk given his injury history, sure, but Taillon offers affordable upside -- two words teams love to hear.
It’s less clear where Frazier might fit, given the availability of several free-agent second basemen and super-utility players, but the 29-year-old has been a likely trade candidate for more than a year given the Pirates’ abundance of middle infield options. And Frazier offers value, whether it’s as a Gold Glove finalist and everyday second baseman or as a super-utility type with a league-average bat over the last five years. He’s set to earn $4.3 million this year; with Bell and Musgrove gone, that would make him the Pirates’ second-highest earner behind Gregory Polanco.
Among the other players who could be dealt sooner than later, if the Pirates get the right offer: right-hander Chad Kuhl, left-hander Steven Brault and relievers Richard Rodríguez and Chris Stratton. Cherington acknowledged that the Pirates have more bullpen candidates than available jobs, and someone else might find a role for Pittsburgh’s top two returning relievers.
2. More work to 'build the talent base'
Moving established big leaguers would obviously bring back more prospects who would continue to fill up the Pirates’ farm system. Expect Pittsburgh to remain active on the international front, too, after a big start to the signing period headlined by the acquisition of 16-year-old outfield prospect Shalin Polanco. And this focus on the future will continue throughout 2021 and likely into ’22.
“A team like the Padres, part of the reason they’re in this position to be able to acquire the players they’ve acquired this offseason is because they didn’t stop adding,” Cherington said. “They didn’t add prospects for one year. They kept doing it, so they’ve built a base there that allows them to do things.”
There’s also the matter of figuring out where all these prospects are going to play, an important decision for their development that could be made more complicated by Cherington’s expectation that Minor League Spring Training will begin after big league camp breaks. That split might force the Pirates to create assignments heading into the camp, which isn’t wholly unusual; what is unusual is that those prospects will be entering camp coming off a canceled Minor League season.
“We just have less information going into Spring Training, so if a player comes into Spring Training who we feel has made a meaningful step forward … then we don’t want to be blind to that,” Cherington said. “At the same time, if we feel like someone maybe didn’t take as much advantage of the time, maybe we want to be a little more cautious. So that’s a long way of saying I don’t know.”
3. A few players acquired to fill roles
Yes, the Pirates are bound to bring in a few players by the time Opening Day arrives. They won’t make big splashes, but they still need to round out their roster. Cherington said the front office currently has “oars in the water” on free agents and trades, aiming to make moves before Spring Training begins.
“We don’t know what our team is going to look like on Opening Day yet, but when we get there, I’m confident that we’re going to be prepared to play and we’re going to go into every game believing we can win,” Cherington said. “We’re going to have a lot of young players that we’re excited to see develop that have a chance to be a part of that [future] core you’re talking about.”
What might they add? Cherington began his list with pitching, specifically starting pitching but also more bullpen arms to add to the Spring Training competition. Cherington also expressed interest in adding another outfielder and said the team remains “open-minded about catching” behind Jacob Stallings and Michael Perez.
“Then just [be] opportunistic, I’d say, aside from that. Just looking for the best opportunities, whether that’s a trade or free agency,” Cherington said. “Guys that either fit really well or we think would have value for us going forward.”
4. Adding now to trade later
One way to provide value for the Pirates as a short-term, veteran player? Perform well enough to get yourself traded to a contender willing to part with prospects.
The Pirates could improve the product on the field at PNC Park and improve their chances of being active at the Trade Deadline by signing some available free agents. If they pan out, it’s a short-term rental with a potential long-term benefit.
“Players are really smart, and certainly free agents are really smart. They know what's going on,” Cherington said. “They know if they sign and for whatever reason, the team is not in contention at the Deadline and they're performing well, it probably means their names [come] up in a trade. I think most guys are prepared for that, and we're honest about it. There's no reason to hide that.”
The Pirates signed Jarrod Dyson for $2 million last February and received $243,300 in additional international spending space in a trade with the White Sox despite the veteran center fielder’s poor performance at the plate. But a bigger investment in free agency might yield a bigger return of young talent. The question, then, becomes whether the Pirates are willing to pay the price for free agents who could make that kind of an impact.
Their projected Opening Day payroll is currently around $42-43 million, although that’s bound to change as they sign some players and trade others. But even after moving Bell and Musgrove, has Cherington been given the financial flexibility necessary to add value to the team this offseason?
“There was no need to move payroll for the sake of moving payroll. There was no request to do that. We could have kept the same payroll,” he said. “Because we traded some players, my expectation is that we would look for ways to reallocate that money in ways that we felt helped us the most and were consistent with what we’re trying to build toward. Whether that’s free agency or acquiring players in trades or our own players, a combination, we’re open-minded about how we deploy that.”