Embrace the rebuild. Hear that? I’ll say it again. Embrace the rebuild. Every one of us needs to acknowledge and understand the nature of what Ben Cherington is undertaking. It takes patience. Weathering some truly bad baseball. But Ben Cherington is doing what is necessary for the Pittsburgh Pirates to reach contending heights again.
No, this isn’t another twenty-year rebuild, and that talking point is growing stale on top of being factually incorrect. The last true rebuild the Pirates undertook was when Neal Huntington replaced Dave Littlefield in September 2007. The 2010 season found the Pirates hitting rock bottom with the club losing 105 games, albeit with the emergence of Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, and Pedro Alvarez. The following two seasons saw the Pirates starting off hot with two strong first halves before collapsing in the second half (Gerrit Cole was drafted first overall in 2011). Then, of course, we have the 2013-2015 seasons, during which the Pittsburgh Pirates won the second-most games in all of baseball behind only their division rival St. Louis Cardinals.
What occurred after those memorable, entertaining years, contrary to talking points parroted by Pittsburgh media and sports fans, was not another rebuild. What Neal Huntington did from 2016 to 2019 was not a tear down. It was patchwork construction of a team hoping to get by without spending money, reinforce key positions, and hit on another reclamation project a-la a Liriano, Volquez, or Burnett. Take the Chris Archer trade, for instance. A team in the midst of a rebuild doesn’t trade three highly-regarded prospects (Glasnow, Meadows, and Baz, for those that somehow blocked that trade from their memory) for a veteran starting pitcher at the deadline. A team in the midst of a rebuild doesn’t trade Gerrit Cole for major league ready players in the hope of slotting them right into the lineup and not missing a beat (and I say this as one of Colin Moran’s biggest fans and as someone who hopes Moran is around when the Pirates’ window opens).
Indeed, the deadline day deal for Chris Archer on July 31, 2018 was the last stand for Neal Huntington’s vision of the Pittsburgh Pirates. I’m convinced to this day that Huntington only made the trade in response to fan demands and fury after not reinforcing following the 98-win season in 2015. After going on a run and appearing on the verge of contending for a Wild Card appearance in 2018, Huntington wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice. Of course, the trade spectacularly backfired, and the veneer of contention in 2018 quickly faded to black. From there it was only a matter of time for Huntington, president Frank Coonelly, and manager Clint Hurdle. After going 69-93 in the 2019 season, all three were gone by the end of October.
And that’s how we got to where we are today in the story of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Neal Huntington left the once vaunted Pirates farm system bare and in a state of disarray. All the hard-work and goodwill the Pirates enjoyed in the Steel City was shattered by disillusion with ownership and questionable personnel decisions. Ben Cherington and new president Travis Williams walked into the eyewall of a storm when they took their positions in late fall 2019.
Yet Cherington’s decisions have been refreshing, healthy, and are already paying dividends in the lower depths of the farm system. He signaled immediately to the fans that he would not be undertaking a patchwork project by trading Starling Marte for Liover Peguero and Brennan Malone, two young, high-ceiling prospects in the Diamondbacks’ system, in January 2020. MLB Pipeline has Peguero as the number four prospect in the Pirates’ system with Malone slotting in behind at number seven.
The Pirates were quiet otherwise before the 2020 season. And yet Cherington still left his mark by selecting 2B Nick Gonzales, the best hitter available, with the seventh overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft. Gonzales is the number one Pirates prospect.
Following the 2020 season, Cherington dealt the struggling and under-achieving Josh Bell to the Washington Nationals for Will Crowe and Eddie Yean. Crowe slotted immediately into the Pirates’ plans for 2021, but Eddie Yean was the crown-jewel of the trade. Only 19 years old when acquired by the Pirates, Yean, according to MLB Pipeline, sits at number twelve in the Pirates’ prospect rankings.
But Ben Cherington made his biggest mark with the trades of two popular Pirates pitchers- Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon. Both deals netted an abundance of high-ceiling prospects for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Musgrove was traded to the Padres in a three-team deal with the Mets. The Pirates received catcher Endy Rodriguez from the Mets, beginning to acquire depth of a position at great need, while getting outfielder Hudson Head and pitchers David Bednar, Omar Cruz, and Drake Fellows from the Padres. Bednar has been a revelation out of the Pirates’ bullpen this season, arriving with the team ahead of schedule; he has future closer potential. Hudson Head, on the other hand, resides along the same lines as Liover Peguero: a young prospect with extremely high upside. MLB Pipeline ranks Head, a five-tool prospect, as the number five player in the Pirates’ farm system.
While Musgrove was a pitcher for whom Cherington demanded a big-time piece, Cherington understood that trading Jameson Taillon was a case of getting the most he could from a team in dire of need of pitching and willing to take a risk on a player with an injury history. If that was Cherington’s mission, he succeeded. For Jameson Taillon, the New York Yankees sent back outfielder Canaan Smith-Njigba, shortstop Maikol Escotto, and pitchers Roansy Contreras and Miguel Yajure. MLB Pipeline has Yajure as the number eleven prospect, Contreras as the number nineteen prospect, and Smith-Njigba as the number twenty-four prospect in the Pirates’ system. A trade well-done.
So, what does a rebuild look like? Rebuild the farm system? Check. Since Cherington has taken over the Pirates have risen to number eight in MLB Pipeline’s rankings; as Keith Law in The Athletic says, “I think this is a system on the rise for a variety of reasons.” Make smart trades for the future? Check. It’s early, of course, but Cherington has yet to make a trade that hasn’t been favorably analyzed by MLB insiders. Make hard, sometimes unpopular decisions that nevertheless benefit the franchise? Check. See the Joe Musgrove trade. Get trade-chips to play at their best in order to maximize their value? Check. Look at what Adam Frazier, Richard Rodriguez, and Tyler Anderson are doing this season.
Ben Cherington is putting this franchise on an upward trajectory. Now, when the window opens (in, I suspect, the 2023-2024 seasons) will Bob Nutting spend money to put the team over the top? That’s a whole other issue and discussion. But for what Ben Cherington should be doing, and for what he’s been tasked with, he’s hitting all the marks. Embrace it.
Featured Photo: @Pirates