No matter how good Yoshi Tsutsugo is…
No matter how much the farm system produces…
No matter if the Pirates extend Bryan Reynolds and Ke’Bryan Hayes…
They’re still going to need help from the outside.
There’s not a single contender that is built fully from within. Every contender contains players who were added at a value of cost to production. But, contenders also need to add key pieces to their team from the outside, especially as needs become more narrow.
The Pirates don’t exactly have a narrow list of needs. You can currently count on two of their eight MLB position players for the long-term. No one from the pitching staff has stepped up to be a top of the rotation guy, and I’m not sure the Pirates have a number three guy at the moment — though they should find guys capable of that production from the current group.
Ben Cherington has been throwing a lot of Tsutsugo experiments at the wall, and as I wrote last night, I like that specific experiment. I also like the process.
I’ve written in the past about Cherington’s favorable track record with free agency. When the Pirates do turn to the outside to spend, they will likely be operating in the middle tier of the free agent class, priced out of the top tier free agents. Fortunately, that’s where Cherington’s most notable success has taken place. That success has already transferred to the Pirates in a way with the low-cost signing of LHP Tyler Anderson.
If the Pirates wanted to upgrade their team early though, and add someone to join the crew starting in 2022, where would they add?
Outside of Bryan Reynolds in center field and Ke’Bryan Hayes at third base, every position is up in the air.
You hope that there’s no gap in production between Jacob Stallings and Henry Davis. You hope that Davis works out as expected.
You hope that Kevin Newman figures out how to hit MLB pitching consistently, at least enough to bridge the gap to one of the shortstop prospects.
You hope that many of the prospects who are set to arrive in 2022 and 2023 can provide an upgrade over the current remaining counter-parts, who are mostly just above replacement-level.
Not every prospect will work out, and the Pirates will eventually be in need of an upgrade.
So, how should the Pirates plan ahead to anticipate where they might need an upgrade, before a busted prospect leaves a hole at the position?
The biggest way is depth.
Catcher is the best way to show this. The Pirates are fine with Jacob Stallings now. They are projected to be even better with Henry Davis in the future. But, if Davis doesn’t work out, they are left hoping for Endy Rodriguez, Carter Bins, Eli Wilson, or Abrahan Gutierrez to emerge as a starting option. Three of those four options were added to the system this calendar year, along with Davis.
The Pirates have more depth at shortstop, where Oneil Cruz or Liover Peguero could be future candidates to replace Newman, or Cole Tucker if he eventually gets an opportunity. They also have other middle infield options behind Cruz and Peguero.
Catcher and shortstop are single positions with multiple prospects gunning for the job.
What about outfield and the rotation — areas where the Pirates have multiple needs and not a lot of depth?
The current outfield prospects include Travis Swaggerty, Cal Mitchell, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Matthew Fraizer, and Jack Suwinski. Those five will be battling for two future spots in Pittsburgh. A key difference here is that the talent group is lower than the top options at catcher and shortstop.
You should always expect a prospect to fall short of his ceiling projections, and maybe even the 50th percentile. If Henry Davis is expected to be a 60-grade player, pencil him in as a 50-grade guy. If Oneil Cruz has a 70-grade ceiling, perhaps limit yourself to dreaming about a 60-grade player, and hope that 50-grade is a given.
This process changes when the ceiling of players is a 50, or less. At that point the projected production is the minimum level starter you’d want on a contending team. Even if that player drops down to a 40-grade production, he could start on a contender, but that would lead to future articles like this one, discussing potential upgrades.
The odds that two of those five outfielders will reach their projected upsides is slim, and not something the Pirates should bank on. That would make the outfield a great place to start in free agency. The Pirates need two long-term starters, and if they added one from the outside, it would give those five remaining prospects one spot to shoot for. If more than one of those guys does work out, the Pirates would have the good problem of depth.
The same concept applies to the rotation. There are five spots that could frankly be upgraded in this current rotation. The challenge here is that the guys occupying most of those spots are guys who could be the upgrades in the future.
Mitch Keller, Bryse Wilson, JT Brubaker, Miguel Yajure, and Wil Crowe could all pitch in a future contending rotation, and there might even be a talent in that group to step up as a top of the rotation guy. Those guys will be joined next year by Steven Brault and Chad Kuhl at the moment, with other guys like Max Kranick added in for depth.
The future rotation will be led by prospects like Quinn Priester and Roansy Contreras, among other names on a list that can never be too long for five MLB rotation spots.
The rotation would be an excellent area to add a boost, trying to bring in a veteran starter who can not only get innings like Tyler Anderson did, but also put up better than league-average numbers.
The Pirates have plenty of areas where they could upgrade this team. They have a deep farm system with a lot of options who can emerge as upgrades. They will need some help from the outside, and a great way to do that early would be adding to the outfield and the rotation, where multiple needs exist at both positions.
Until free agency actually hits, we will all watch and hope that the Tsutsugo’s and fringe-prospects like Hoy Park and Rodolfo Castro can use the remainder of the season to reduce the amount of needs in the Pirates’ future.