Williams: From Old to Young

About a week ago, I started mapping out the Pirates’ organizational depth chart, doing my best to provide a baseline of expectations for where everyone will end up at the start of the season. This was right after Ethan Hullihen had an excellent breakdown of what the minor league rosters might look like in 2021.

Not long after my process, the Pirates traded for Duane Underwood Jr.

The second article of this series was meant to look at that move, and some additional moves the Pirates could make.

Then, the Pirates signed Trevor Cahill to a $1.5 million deal.

Spring Training has begun, but the offseason isn’t exactly over. We’re in one of those years where the Pirates can sign promising players at a cheap price all the way into March. It’s one of those David Freese/Reggie Sanders type years, where the entire league is somehow magically on the same wavelength for the value of older veterans, allowing them to be signed for an obvious deal by a small market team.

Cahill just turned 33 years old, but could still be a promising member of the Pirates’ rotation in 2021. Last year he had a 3.24 ERA and a 4.48 xFIP in 25 innings, and he’s two years removed from a 2.0 fWAR as a starter with the Athletics. The hope for the Pirates is that he can gain enough value in the first half to flip him at the deadline for some kind of future return. If Cahill can help out some of the younger pitchers on the staff in the process, that would be a bonus.

The late additions to the team will only further crowd the upper levels of the organization with veteran and post-prospect depth. Yesterday’s article outlined the position battles on the roster, with questions about the rotation and outfield. Those questions were all valid at this time last week.

One week later, and you could make the argument that Underwood will bump someone like Cole Tucker or Phillip Evans to Triple-A, or that Cahill will bump someone like JT Brubaker to the bullpen or to the minors.

It makes you wonder what this team is going to look like in another week.

My entire focus for this article series is to try and describe an upcoming shift in the Pirates’ approach. The system currently trends older, especially in the upper levels. There are a lot of post-prospects, cheaper veterans, and prospects on last chances who are currently battling it out in Spring Training.

I can see that being a temporary thing at the start of the year. The Triple-A season doesn’t begin until early-May, which means most of the post-prospects and waiver claims the Pirates have added will probably be churned through Pittsburgh from the alternate training site.

On the opposite end of the system, the Pirates will have to reduce their minor league size down to 180 players, after two of their teams were eliminated during MLB’s minor league restructuring. There will be a lot of younger players battling it out for the few spots remaining, and a lot of fliers who might get scooped up by other teams who like them more.

In that sense, I don’t make much about the Shendrik Apostel trade for Underwood. Yes, the Pirates gave up someone to get Underwood, but was it someone they were planning on keeping? In the 10th Anniversary Prospect Guide, we had Apostel as a 2.0, with a ceiling of the upper minors. I’m not sure that he would have still been in the system by the end of the roster trim down in the minors.

Is Underwood a glorified waiver claim, or is Apostel a sign that Underwood has an inside track to the team? And if he has an inside track due to zero options remaining, how much further does his track run than, say, Carson Fulmer’s inside track?

This is a weird year all around. A second-year GM who has yet to see a normal MLB season, nor a single real minor league game. The tail-end of a year-plus global pandemic. A sudden rebuild of sorts that took place between Christmas and the end of January. A massive restructuring of the minor leagues. The need to remove two teams worth of players from the organization. Plus, the hopeful development changes in the system to top it all off.

What I see through all of this is the potential for a split approach this season.

I think the Pirates will spend the first half churning through the older guys on a last chance. This includes the post-prospects in the majors, along with some of the older prospects in the upper levels of the minors.

From there, I think we’ll see a second-half wave of prospects arriving in the majors, age-appropriate prospects filling up the full-season rosters, and continued moves to build the system for the future.

The hope in the first half of that scenario is that the Pirates can extract as much long-term value from the 2021 team.

The hope in the second half of that scenario is that the Pirates can show signs that winning will begin sooner than later.

Next week I’ll be breaking down the minor league rosters. It’s way too early for that process, as their season is almost two months away. However, I believe this will further illustrate the potential first half/second half trend that we can expect from the Pirates, along with some players to follow on either side of the season.