First Pitch: Ben Cherington Has Talent to Work With, But Can He Develop an Andrew McCutchen?

“This is a bad, bad, bad, bad trade. McCutchen will be better than Chad Hermansen, maybe even McLouth. But he will never hit with as much power as Nate, nor will he ever be good as Jason Bay. But we did just save a lot of money!”

“All this talk about losing power. McLouth has hit his peak and won’t be putting up better numbers. While everyone thinks McCutchen has no power what so ever, neither did McLouth in the minors. Even less so than McCutch. McCutchen has the build and the swing to hit 25-30 hrs. at the major league level. It seems that the Pirates have some promising players in the minors, between Alvarez, Friday, Tabata, Hernandez and Pearce.”

Pirates fans discussing the Nate McLouth trade and Andrew McCutchen’s debut

Predicting the future of human beings is an impossible task.

*****

September 3rd, 2010.

I’m sitting in a very tiny, very old press box in Williamsport, Pa.

I don’t belong here. I’ve been a sports writer for about three years now, but I’ve spent very little time being a reporter.

I’ve just started getting credentials for my website, Pirates Prospects, and decide to spend the last two weeks of the season on the road, trying to see as many Pirates games as I can, in order to get information for a book that I’m going to call the Prospect Guide. I’ve just started getting credentials from teams who aren’t affiliated with the Pirates.

After thousands of miles of driving, very cheap and shitty hotel rooms, crashing on couches with friends, staying with family, and one night sleeping in my car at a rest stop, I’m nearing the end of the season.

In front of me tonight is a left-handed pitcher who gets a lot of hype in the Pirates’ system. It’s my first time seeing Zack Dodson, who the Pirates drafted in the 4th round and paid a $600,000 over-slot bonus to during their infamous 2009 draft. He would go on to be named the #18 prospect in the system by Baseball America that off-season, justifying the additional drive up to Williamsport for me.

I get out my video camera to record Dodson for my reference, but also to get an edge on the site by posting to Youtube. Remember, this was 2010.

The media director sees this after a few innings and tells me I’m not allowed to record the game, as I don’t have the rights to broadcast. This is a short season Low-A baseball game.

I tell him that I’m scouting, and recording for my own personal use.

The old media guys next to me scoff at the idea that someone in the press box could be scouting the players.

He tells me I don’t have a scouting credential.

I counter that I’m just using this for my reference, leaving out the plans for Youtube. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.

He has somewhere to be, so he comes up with some legal sounding “You are explicitly prohibited from broadcasting this video at any time, etc, etc.”

“Sure!”

(I kind of want to dig it up out of my external hard drive and post the video now.)

I watch Dodson, and I record every pitch.

The game includes prospects like Mel Rojas Jr., Matt Curry, and Drew Maggi.

A few days earlier in State College, a scout had told me that none of the position players would make the majors. One of them did, and he was batting ninth that day: Gift Ngoepe.

Dodson went five innings, giving up two runs. I start to put my camera away as another left-hander comes to the mound. I’ve only recently heard of him. His name is Joely Rodriguez.

After seeing a few pitches, I quickly grab my camera and set it back up.

This guy is good!

Why is he pitching in relief? Where did he come from? He’s coming back out for a second inning. This guy is really good. He’s throwing hard! Harder than Dodson. There’s no radar gun in this stadium, and I’m not near the scouts, but you can just tell the ball is moving. A third inning! He’s still firing away. I’d find out the next morning that he hit 94 and was sitting 88-92 throughout his three innings with just one unearned run.

Dodson got a lower rating from us than Baseball America, coming in at number 30 in the 2011 Prospect Guide. We had him lower due to a lack of control, and the lack of a changeup. He was one spot ahead of Daniel Moskos.

Rodriguez was ranked lower, at #39, getting the “sleeper pitcher to follow” tag that I’ve used many times over the years when I didn’t want to make a bold claim about a guy I had seen very little from, but still wanted to prop that guy up.

My favorite part of seeing prospects live is following the guys that I “discovered.” The guys who I saw something in before anyone else. Joely Rodriguez was one of those guys. That one outing was enough for me to see him as more than your average lower level relief prospect, and now he’s in the majors. Even looking back now, with Joely still in the majors, I’m kind of proud of being able to identify talent in Rodriguez immediately.

We had another left-handed pitcher ranked 11 spots lower than Rodriguez at number 50.

His name was Tony Watson.

Predicting the future of human beings is an impossible task.

*****

“Watson could project as a Jeff Karstens type pitcher, working out of the bullpen, but also serving as an emergency starter if needed. At the least he could make a strong LOOGY in the majors, with a .131 BAA versus left handers in 2010.”

-Summary of Tony Watson, our #50 prospect in the 2011 Prospect Guide

“Owens has the chance to be a very special pitcher, with the upside of a number 2-3 starter.”

-Summary of Rudy Owens, our #7 prospect in 2011, from the exact same book

*****

I post that to take a slight dig at myself. We predicted the futures of over 200 players a year for over a decade. You don’t get them all right. You get most wrong. But it’s also to give perspective.

We rated Watson number 50 that year. He didn’t make Baseball America’s top 30 after the 2008 season. Owens, meanwhile, was also rated 7th overall by Baseball America in 2011, where he was called a young Zach Duke with either mid or back-of-the-rotation upside.

I take solace when we’re just as wrong as other people were on players who didn’t make it, and feel joy when we were ahead of others on a player who eventually made it.

Tony Watson became more than Jeff Karstens. He became one of the best left-handed relievers in the game. If you say you saw that coming at any point in his minor league career, you’re speaking entirely in hindsight.

It also doesn’t matter whether you accurately predicted the career of Watson. As long as you had him in the right ballpark at the end of his career, you were golden. Anything he does beyond that point is up to Watson and the laws of probability.

Human beings don’t advance in linear form, and their full potential is always clouded in the uncertainty of what is to come. Watson is a guy who was all over the map in his career, with injuries, struggles as a starter, and low velocity in his statistically successful initial move to the bullpen in the minors. There was no point in his minor league career where his elite numbers in the majors could have been predicted.

Even in his first two years in the majors, when he was competing for roster spots with Moskos. No one was predicting he would become a top reliever starting in 2013, and take things to the next level the very next year.

We talk about ceilings with prospects all the time. We also talk about floors. You might envision a prospect sitting in a room in a house, with an actual roof over his head that limits how far he can go. What if there is no house, and the ceiling is just the actual sky?

Everyone can jump.

Some can jump higher than others.

Some people have the athleticism  to climb trees.

A few people learn how to fly a plane.

Very few people become astronauts.

There’s only one Superman.

*****

“He projects more as No. 1 or 2 hitter than someone who’ll bat in the middle of a major league order, so he’ll need to show more patience and draw more walks. With his speed, he could steal more bases than the 61 he has swiped in 327 pro games. He also can improve his outfield instincts, as his quickness allows him to make up for a relative lack of savvy. Despite his subpar 2007, McCutchen remains on the fast track as the Pirates’ one true impact prospect.”

-Baseball America on Andrew McCutchen, pre-2008

“When I did the “Face of the Franchise” story a couple of weeks ago, – maybe it was a month ago, it’s all kind of a blur – he really is the one guy on that team who can do anything. And he’s getting better! That’s what’s more impressive about it, is that as good as he is right now, he’s still improving, he’s still on the upswing.”

Rob Biertempfel discussing Andrew McCutchen on the Rumbunter podcast in 2011

*****

When did Andrew McCutchen become an MVP?

The obvious answer was in 2013, when he actually won the award. But at what point did he become a guy who you could envision as someone who would carry the Pirates and lead them through the seasons they had in 2013-15?

He was seen as an impact prospect by Baseball America prior to the 2008 season. He became a 3+ WAR player his first few years in the majors, but the fact that he was still improving in 2011 was seen as “impressive” and not just an expectation on the path to an inevitable MVP award.

If you’re predicting MVP awards for any prospects, you’re doing it wrong. With most prospect projections, you want to either give a range of possibility, or settle as close to the 50th percentile outcome as you care to get. If you’re predicting an MVP performance, you’re on the extreme end of the bell curve of any prospect’s potential.

That’s why I can’t tell you who the next Andrew McCutchen is in the Pirates’ system. No one can.

I could tell you that Ke’Bryan Hayes or Oneil Cruz have the chance to be an MVP. I could tell you how I think they could each get to that level of performance.

At the same time, I can tell you how Hayes could end up a 1.5-2 WAR player, and how Cruz could end up a replacement level guy who tops out with a few average seasons as a starter in the majors.

My view on projecting prospects is that it’s about predicting how a guy could reach a certain level of performance, and the chances of this happening, rather than just predicting whether he can possibly reach that certain level.

I bring all of this up because a common argument has been made this season: Neal Huntington left the Pirates’s farm system in worse shape than he found them.

Anyone who remembers what the system was like in 2007-2008 knows that this argument is ridiculous. There was barely a farm system when Huntington took over. Brad Lincoln was their hope for an ace. Brian Bixler was a top ten prospect.

But they had Andrew McCutchen!

How could the system have been bad when it had an MVP?

You can’t even see an MVP in this current system at this point in time!

Furthermore, they had Starling Marte, Tony Watson, and Neil Walker. Where are those guys in this system?

The problem here is simply that predicting the future of human beings is an impossible task.

Perhaps even more difficult is remembering what life was like in hindsight before a player reached his eventual ceiling.

We know that Andrew McCutchen became an MVP. We don’t know when people started expecting that production from him, but it’s a safe bet that this wasn’t widely happening when he arrived in 2009.

We know that Tony Watson became a top lefty reliever. I can tell you about seeing him throwing upper 80s in Altoona a few years earlier.

I’ve never felt more anxiety over ranking someone high than when I ranked Starling Marte second overall in that 2011 Prospect Guide. It was only two spots higher than Baseball America, but this was at a time when Marte’s strikeouts made it questionable that he would hit for average in the majors. He was a low-bonus prospect who struggled in the DSL when Huntington took over at the end of 2007.

Neil Walker was a failed catcher who moved to third base, then became a utility player playing in the outfield, before winning a starting job in the summer of 2010. That was in his age 24 season, one year after he struggled in a brief appearance in the majors. Who knows? Maybe Cole Tucker becomes the next Neil Walker starting in the middle of 2021.

We can see what became of the guys Huntington inherited.

We can see the talent that Huntington left Cherington to work with.

It’s difficult to compare the two and show how Cherington’s group is better. I believe that’s because most people don’t really understand the concept of development.

I highlighted that 2011 McCutchen quote from Rob Biertempfel above because of one line:

“And he’s getting better!”

A lot of people don’t really understand the concept of development. It’s almost like there’s an idea that a player has an upside that he will absolutely reach, and the only thing standing between him and that upside is the passage of time. There’s also this idea that a player is fully developed once he reaches the majors, and anything he does positive or negative is on the player.

Andrew McCutchen reached the majors, put up two seasons of 3.5 WAR, and then progressed to becoming an MVP.

Tony Watson reached the majors, was a good middle reliever, and then progressed to becoming a top lefty reliever.

Neil Walker reached the majors, was an average second baseman, then started putting up a few 3-4 WAR seasons.

Starling Marte reached the majors, had his best seasons in his first two full years, then dropped to a 3-3.7 WAR range in most of the years to follow.

But at the end of 2007, they were all far from these outcomes. McCutchen was just making the jump to Triple-A, where he’d spend another year and a half. Walker was a struggling catching prospect. Watson was a starting pitching prospect in the lower levels. Marte was hardly known in the DSL. If you looked at all of them, you could see talent, but you couldn’t see their futures. Those were blocked by the clouds, and in McCutchen’s case, it’s often difficult to see anything beyond our atmosphere.

Take it from the guy who spent the last decade-plus studying every inch of this farm system, trying to find sleepers like Joely Rodriguez in 2010. Take it from the writers I trust the most on the subject of Pirates prospects — John Dreker and Wilbur Miller — who have both been following the Pirates’ farm system since before Huntington was even the General Manager.

The Pirates easily have more talent now than they had when Neal Huntington took over. There’s no question at all about this.

The only question is whether Ben Cherington can get the same results, or better results than Huntington got.

Huntington’s flaw was that he struggled with development of prospects, but he didn’t struggle to develop every prospect. Marte, for example, was almost entirely developed during the Huntington years. McCutchen was improving his game in the majors under Huntington. We can’t reverse Jim Tracy this situation and credit the players when they do well, but blame the front office when they don’t work out. Huntington inherited the talent, but the transition from talent to MLB results happened under his watch.

The question of whether Ben Cherington has better talent in the system is absurd, especially at a time when Ke’Bryan Hayes is flashing his potential each night.

Cherington has Hayes, Mitch Keller, Oneil Cruz, Quinn Priester, and so on. I’d get beyond the top 30 before I could get to a Brian Bixler level talent.

The important question we need to ask is this: Can Ben Cherington develop the talent that he inherited?

Suggesting that Cherington doesn’t have any talent in the system is creating a situation where he’s not held accountable if guys like Keller, Hayes, Cruz, and the other prospects in the system don’t churn out McCutchen and company results.

Huntington was literally fired because he wasn’t getting the best out of the talent the Pirates had.

Cherington was brought in to get better results in this area.

He doesn’t get a pass because it’s not obvious who the next McCutchen, Walker, Marte, or Watson will be.

It’s literally his job to take what the current system has and develop the next McCutchen, Walker, Marte, and Watson.

He has the talent to make it possible.

The only important question is: Can Ben Cherington develop the talent he has available?

The 2020 Prospect Guide returns to print for our tenth  we are releasing three variant covers, featuring Mitch Keller, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and Oneil Cruz. Visit our shop page to order these extremely limited items! Your purchase would help support us to ensure that we can still write about the Pirates through the current tough times, and well into 2030, at which point I’m sure we’ll be arguing about how Ben Cherington actually did leave the Pirates in better shape than what Neal Huntington left behind, and how new Pirates General Manager Raquel Ferreira can get the team back to their glory years from the 2023-2025 seasons by developing the prospects Cherington left behind. Purchase the book now, and you’ll get bonus nostalgia when I reference Shea Murray’s writeup in my September 2030 article about “where is the next unexpected dominant reliever in this current system?”


 

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