Fittingly, now that the minor leagues are being downsized, the Pirates are going to have enough prospects in the system to stock more teams. However it goes, at least we’re seeing a discernible direction for the first time in years. In fact, it’s one of the most focused approaches we’ve ever seen from the Pirates, apart from the everlasting focus on not spending money.
Ben Cherington’s approach is especially striking for the contrast with Neal Huntington’s both when he first came aboard and in more recent trades. Where Huntington sacrificed upside to get major league-ready players, Cherington has dug down deep into other teams’ systems to search for upside. Hopefully, the opposites will continue; where Huntington got tarnished prospects who used to be at the top of teams’ lists but had fallen lower, we hope Cherington is getting #8 and #12 and #19 prospects who’ll break out and earn higher rankings. We hope.
One thing that’s clear is that it’s really hard to trade for prospects now. Players in the 0-6 range have too much value given the inflated salaries of veteran players. You’re not getting premium prospects unless you’re trading an elite MLB talent. And maybe not even then, like if you’re Neal Huntington trading Gerrit Cole.
If you’re wondering whether this was the time to trade Jameson Taillon (or Joe Musgrove), I think it probably was given the state of the market. There are a number of reasons for this:
- Because of the pandemic, everybody’s minor league pipelines got frozen. Some prospects who might have been ready in 2021 won’t be, creating more need for depth on teams that expect to contend.
- All starting pitchers had a fraction of a normal workload in 2020. Caught in a novel situation, teams are likely to be cautious in ramping those workloads back up in 2021, creating added need for depth.
- Most teams are probably concerned about their bottom lines to a greater degree than usual, making affordable pitchers like the Pirates’ all the more desirable.
- An unusual number of teams right now are at various stages of emerging from rebuilds. The Padres, White Sox, Jays, Twins, Braves and Mets all seem to be trying to take big steps forward, creating more-than-usual demand.
I also think Taillon was an especially good gamble for the Yankees. They’re very anxious about getting back to the World Series and the conventional wisdom seems to be that they’ve fallen short because they haven’t had as many top-tier starters as their playoff opponents have had. Taillon is high-risk, but he gives them a shot at a big game starter for little monetary cost. And they’re likely to make the playoffs with or without Taillon, so they’re building more for that than the regular season. They probably don’t need to get a lot of innings from Taillon in the regular season, but if he’s healthy come October, he could make a difference for them.
Of course, whether Cherington has taken adequate advantages of the favorable market is something we’ll learn later. But at least it looks like the right decision to make moves now. (FWIW, Eric Longenhagen appears to like the Pirates’ take a lot. Very much worth a look.)
Another thing we have to hope for is something resembling a normal minor league season. The focus on lower level prospects means the Pirates need their prospects to be competing, earning promotions and getting closer to the majors. Otherwise, the light at the end of the tunnel won’t be getting any closer.
That’s especially true with starting pitching. I have trouble seeing Wil Crowe and Cody Ponce as more than placeholders; the guys who look like something more than that are farther away. With some luck, Cody Bolton could be ready by mid-season. Miguel Yajure might or might not, and Max Kranick or Roansy Contreras would be a stretch. Other prospects look farther away.
This season is likely to be a horror show, especially the rotation unless a bunch of things go right. It’d be nice not to have two years of horror.