Williams: Ben Cherington is Doubling Down on the Development System

I have a lot of respect for Neal Huntington.

That’s probably no secret for anyone who has followed my work over the years. I followed the Pirates’ development closely, and saw a lot of positive signs in the early days. They were drafting some indisputable talent, and developing guys in the lower levels to stock the top prospect lists.

There’s no denying that Huntington had success in Pittsburgh.

There’s no denying he had an eye for talent.

There’s no denying that Huntington didn’t get the most out of the talent he had.

There’s no denying his overall results dropped precipitously following the 2015 season.

Being an MLB General Manager is extremely difficult, especially for a small market team. It takes a very good General Manager to get the results the Pirates saw from 2013-15, especially when considering how depleted the system was when Huntington took over. The Pirates had very little talent to work with, an incohesive development system, and scouts who either weren’t identifying good players, or scouts who weren’t being listened to when they did identify good players.

Huntington left the organization in better shape than when he took over. That’s a point that gets refuted among Pittsburgh media, mostly from those who lack nuance and are presenting black and white analysis. And honestly, it’s largely one person who it seems ate a bowl of urine soaked Cheerios one morning, and never forgot who supplied the milk.

Yes, there are some who go to extreme lengths to criticize Huntington, to the point where they need to get in the territory of calling Dave Littlefield a competent General Manager to make their reality work. But there’s no denying the Pirates were in better shape when Cherington took over than when Huntington took over.

History will show us conclusively that there was more talent in the system when Cherington took over. That’s my educated guess. It’s easy to look back at Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and the few other future MLB guys acquired under Littlefield and say that Huntington only won with Littlefield guys. If Cherington wins, it’s going to be with Huntington guys like Ke’Bryan Hayes, Oneil Cruz, Quinn Priester, and so on. There are also more opportunities now for a Starling Marte to emerge from the lower levels, as the international approach has been massively overhauled.

The weaknesses for Huntington were development and approach. If development wasn’t such a huge issue, the approach wouldn’t have mattered.

I can’t tell you how frustrating it was to be a prospect writer covering Huntington in Pittsburgh. I’d talk with scouts, players, executives, and other prospect evaluators in the industry, and come away with a very positive opinion of the talent in the system. That was shared by a lot of people in the game. The story in Pittsburgh was a complete 180, and it was almost like hearing about another General Manager and another organization completely.

This is standard, I feel. Most fanbases dismiss prospects until they do anything in the majors. So if you’re an organization that has an eye for talent, but you can never develop that talent to be a MLB player, most fans will assume the talent never existed in the first place.

Most people think linearly. If the last year with COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that some people can’t see a thing as real until there’s actual tangible evidence that they can’t possibly deny. Few people think exponentially, where they can envision future things that don’t exist yet, based on projecting out what we currently know, and what we anticipate for the future.

You have to think exponentially when you follow prospects. You have to look at a random 6′ 4″, 210 pound pitcher out of high school and project what he will be ten years from now when he’s pitching in the World Series for your MLB team.

You know he’s going to grow like every other person in their late teens/early 20s. You know he’s going to stop growing around the same age everyone else stops growing. You know he’s going to fail to initially realize that he can no longer eat an entire pizza by himself and he’ll grow in new directions. You know that if he gets stronger, he’s going to have better athletic results on the field.

People aren’t chia pets though. You can’t just add water to an over-slot prep pitcher and get an MLB player after X amount of years. There’s something to unlock in the individual person’s mind to get them to understand and embrace the approach that will lead to success. It’s the core of development and teaching, and it’s extremely difficult.

Huntington improved the organization in many ways, but where it lacked was the development. They left a lot of unrealized potential on the table, and had they seen better results in this department alone, we may have seen some deeper playoff runs, a longer period of winning, and maybe even a World Series.

Cherington has inherited talent from Huntington. He inherited the scouting department that found that talent — a department that was massively overhauled under Huntington in the years following the poor 2009 draft.

He also inherited the development system that was broken.

Huntington elevated the organization, but left with the organization still having plenty of room to go up. It’s Cherington’s job to take the Pirates to the next step, which would be getting back to the post-season, but in a more sustainable form that isn’t limited to a three year stretch.

The biggest way to do that is to fix the development system. Cherington has been at that since he took over in smaller ways. From all accounts, especially the players who were previously in the system and noted differences in approach, the Pirates embraced a more individualized way of teaching, while incorporating technology and analytics into the development process as more mandatory tools to work with. The previous front office was more reserved with adding this to development, fearing they would detract from some players who didn’t understand what they were looking at.

What I find interesting is that Cherington is doubling down on the development improving. His trades have been highly focused on adding lower level guys with upside, who would largely benefit from an improved system. Consider the following moves in the last year:

**Starling Marte was traded for shortstop Liover Peguero and right-handed pitcher Brennan Malone, along with international money used to sign 16-year old outfielder Solomon Maguire. Peguero and Malone had yet to play above short-season ball, and were both coming off their age-18 seasons.

**Josh Bell was traded for Eddy Yean and Wil Crowe. The latter is a 26-year-old with big league experience, although I feel there’s some untapped potential here to get a reliable back of the rotation starter for a few years. The bigger part of the return was Yean, who is coming off his age-19 season and hasn’t played above short-season ball. The right-handed pitcher does flash a lot of velocity, and has been reportedly making strides with his game despite the lost 2020 season.

**Now, Joe Musgrove has been traded for five players. The headline of the deal is center fielder Hudson Head, who will turn 20 in April, and has yet to play above rookie ball. Endy Rodriguez turns 21 in May, and has yet to play above rookie ball. Like Yean, both guys have seen positive reports of emerging their game during the 2020 season, based on the reports from instructs. There’s also 21-year-old left-handed pitcher Omar Cruz, and 22-year-old right-handed pitcher Drake Fellows, who has yet to pitch in pro ball, despite his age.

**In between all of these moves, Cherington has been trading anyone of value for international bonus pool space, and spending as much of that as possible, including signing Taiwanese right-handed pitcher Po-Yu Chen for $1.25 million to finish the last signing class, and signing Dominican center fielder Shalin Polanco for $2.35 million to start the new class.

The common trend is that Cherington is loading up the lower levels with a lot of guys who don’t have much pro experience, but who have plenty of room to grow and develop their game. I spoke with Cherington in December about the changes to the farm system, and we discussed the lost year of development. The Pirates are banking on the idea that some players developed during this time, even with the absence of games.

“I do believe players got better in 2020,” Cherington said of the minor leaguers. “It’s hard to be able to quantify that precisely, because we don’t have any game data to be able to kind of judge that on. I suppose proof will be in the pudding, long-term. We believe players got better through a very challenging year. We don’t need to think about it as 2019 stopped, 2020 started, and then the brakes got put on, and we picked up in 2021, we’re going to start back in 2019. That’s not how we’re thinking about it. We think there are strides made in 2020. We’re all going to be learning a lot as we go through 2021. Hopefully it will be during games that we can see and evaluate.”

The rest of the Cherington interview is included in the 10th Anniversary Prospect Guide, which is available for pre-order now.

The idea that people can improve without games is not a crazy idea to embrace at all, especially since we’ve seen one such notable example in Quinn Priester. The Pirates have been acquiring similar guys, based on the reports we’ve heard from national outlets.

The stock of a player really goes up when he starts producing numbers on the field at a full-season level. Cherington is adding guys before they reach this point, but potentially adding them after they’ve seen improvements that will naturally lead to the results.

A linear approach would wait until those guys produce in A-ball before acquiring them. By that point, it would be too late for Cherington to get those players in such a trade. Thus, the exponential gamble that is core to building around prospects.

If you look in the system, Cherington also inherited a lot of these younger players from Huntington. Getting Priester was a massive boost. We saw Tahnaj Thomas on the rise at the end of 2019, and he’s yet to play full-season ball. Braxton Ashcraft, Michael Burrows, Ji-Hwan Bae, Sammy Siani, Santiago Florez, Rodolfo Nolasco, Alexander Mojica, and Jase Bowen are among the players Cherington inherited who will be in their age 21 season or younger next year. All of them drew consideration for our top 30.

Cherington is going to succeed or fail based on his ability to fix the problems that existed in the development system. There was never an issue with a lack of talent. The talent was depleted from where the system was a few years ago, but is still strong, with a lot of guys to work with in the lowest levels. Cherington has actively been boosting that group of lower level prospects. If he can establish a strong development system, then we’ll be seeing a big wave of prospects hitting the majors in the 2023-25 years, and hopefully beyond this time.

Neal Huntington took the Pirates from the rubble and built an organization that contended for the first time in decades, and established that Pittsburgh could be a contender with the right moves. Cherington’s job will be to take the next step and see how far he can take the Pirates beyond a few disappointing Wild Card game losses, and one early-round exit. It’s not the worst approach to start building from the ground up for that goal, especially when the biggest thing holding you back was the development from the ground up.