I thought I was crazy.
Maybe I was just bad at this scouting stuff.
I saw so many people who I thought would be MLB starters and stars end up going to Pittsburgh and struggling.
I wasn’t alone in thinking the Pirates had talented prospects under Neal Huntington. The Pirates routinely had top 100 prospects at an above-average rate from the national outlets. The fact they also appeared wrong didn’t ease my self-doubt of my own evaluation skills.
Maybe we weren’t all wrong about those prospects. Maybe the system was broken?
And then, some of those disappointing prospects started going elsewhere.
And they started having the success that everyone expected.
When Pirates General Manager Ben Cherington took over, there was a narrative that started showing up that the Pirates didn’t have any prospects in the farm system.
That was both true and false.
It’s clearly false. We’re all expecting Oneil Cruz, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Mason Martin, Rodolfo Castro, Bryan Reynolds, Mitch Keller, and Quinn Priester to play big roles in the next Pirates contender. Those were all players acquired by Huntington.
From my perspective, Neal Huntington took over an extremely broken organization. The biggest impact he made was improving the scouting across the globe, and especially in the United States. The current scouts that oversaw the first two very strong Ben Cherington drafts are the scouts Huntington had in place.
The Pirates didn’t have a problem finding talent. They were really good at finding talent that had broken out before anyone else had noticed. That saw a boost under Ben Cherington. The Pirates have seen huge value increases from guys like Roansy Contreras, Endy Rodriguez, and Liover Peguero in the time since they were acquired. You could also add David Bednar to that list, already getting MLB results at a lights out rate.
The Pirates had talent when Ben Cherington took over. Unfortunately, they didn’t have enough talent, and what they had was piecemealed throughout the entire organization.
The system now is more sturdy, if you will.
The 2021 season saw a very young and talented group win a championship in Low-A Bradenton. Another talented team went to the playoffs in Greensboro. The trades over the last year have stocked Altoona with talent. All three of those levels trended among the youngest in their leagues, and those young players showed promise.
All three of those levels are moving up in 2022.
What Ben Cherington has done well is restructure the flow of talent throughout the organization. Even after today’s trade of Jacob Stallings, I think this is a team that can contend in 2023. They’re going to need a catcher, among other things. The first wave of that flow of talent will hit in 2022, with even more prospects arriving in 2023.
Ideally, it will continue for years after that.
Why shouldn’t it?
The Pirates haven’t had an issue finding talent.
Their issue has been development.
So what will be different this time around?
If I’m the only person standing in the middle of the street shouting something, I’m probably going to look a bit crazy.
If I’m standing in the same street with a large group of people shouting that same something, it looks like a celebration. Or, a riot.
I used to shout that Jacob Stallings was a future MLB player. I was called crazy. In fact, Stallings is a big reason I don’t doubt my scouting abilities anymore. After my first time watching him, and first time talking with him, I had him down as a future big leaguer. He remained among the players we featured yearly. I had a guy follow me literally everywhere on the internet for a few years reminding me all the time that I had projected Stallings and Chad Kuhl as MLB players, as if it was already set that they would never reach that level.
I don’t know if you’re here today celebrating or rioting the Jacob Stallings trade.
I’m just happy that I’m not the only one who sees why Stallings is such a great catcher. So great that he won a Gold Glove, and was just traded for a return of talented players that better fit the Pirates’ talent convergence.
There’s one issue I have with the trade, and it’s the same issue I have with these early waves of prospects from the minors: The lack of high-end talent. Here was one take on the trade, offered up by Alex Stumpf:
Talking to an NL analyst, I had the Stallings trade return described to me as a backend starter/swingman (Thompson), young pitcher who maybe could start but is probably a bullpen FB/SL guy (Nicolas) and a 4th outfielder (Scott).
For a Gold Glove catcher w/ three years of control
— Alex Stumpf (@AlexJStumpf) November 29, 2021
That’s not far off the general consensus on these players. I have Thompson as a starter, Nicolas as a reliever, and Scott as a wild-card to add to the growing outfield mix.
That outfield mix has Travis Swaggerty, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Jack Suwinski, Matt Fraizer, and Cal Mitchell in the upper levels. None of those guys really scream more than an average starter, and you could put the fourth outfield label on many of them. But it seems the Pirates are going to throw them all out there eventually, until someone emerges as more than a third or fourth outfielder.
The Pirates have quantity of quality, which is a good recipe to have someone emerge and exceed their projections to become an impact player. It seems their strategy is to throw Thompson, Miguel Yajure, Bryse Wilson, and Wil Crowe out there and see which one emerges as more than a back-of-the-rotation guy.
The Stallings trade added to the two areas where they’re stockpiling the most depth from trades — outfield and pitching — and those are the two areas where they have the biggest long-term MLB needs. Almost every prospect they’ve added has come with a kind of “he’s secretly on the rise” vibe.
Cherington has added at least two dozen players via trade since taking over. To his credit, the Pirates have seen a few of those players already emerge to look like potential above-average starters.
How many more can this development system churn out over the next few years?
And is that development system fixed?
The way I see it, Neal Huntington fixed the scouting, but left the player development system needing a lot of work.
Ben Cherington’s first year ultimately resulted in bringing in John Baker to run the farm system, while deciding which coaches to keep from the old system.
Baker started implementing some of his changes this past year. I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve seen and heard in comparing the old system to the new one. I think the Pirates will see better results from their development system this time around, and Baker is a big reason for that belief.
I think there’s some disappointment from Pirates fans that the losing will continue. Today’s Stallings trade signals that the losing will continue through at least 2022. At this point, the goal posts have been moved to 2023 or 2024 for when we can expect the Pirates to contend.
And no one really has any clue which of those years it will be.
I get it.
The Pirates were broken. They were completely broken when Huntington took over. That’s why they lost 20 years in a row. They were less broken when Cherington took over. That’s why they only won three years in a row.
This “build” under Cherington sucks for the Pirates fans who are still around through 20 years of losing, who only got a brief taste of winning, before descending again into a stretch of five losing seasons in the last six years. It might even extend to six of seven, or seven of eight.
The silver lining would be that the Pirates emerge on the other side of this losing with an organization that is no longer broken, ready to churn out talent found by good scouts, and developed by a system of good coaches catering to the individual players.
In other words, it will all be worth it if this “build” leads to more than just three years of winning. It would be nice if the Pirates are toward an Oakland Athletics or Tampa Bay Rays style system that would get them regular visits to the MLB postseason, while avoiding these long losing stretches.