Williams: How Long Has This Rebuild Been Going and When Will It End?

When did the Pittsburgh Pirates begin their rebuild?

If you go by their last true contending season, then the 2022 season will be the seventh year under those efforts.

But what is “effort” when rebuilding?

The Pirates certainly worked to build toward a future in 2016 when they transitioned to a heavier focus on the wave of prospects set to arrive from the minors. They continued that build for the future in the next two years, trading away the likes of Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Andrew McCutchen, and Gerrit Cole.

All of those trades brought good future value. The Pirates are banking on the returns from the Watson (Oneil Cruz), McCutchen (Bryan Reynolds), and Cole (Joe Musgrove trade return) deals as part of their current building efforts.

The Pirates weren’t exactly rebuilding during these years. They were maximizing long-term value, while hoping to maintain their place in the present.

That’s been a huge difference in the switch to Ben Cherington. There’s been no mistake about the focus of the team. There is no attempt to win at the MLB level right now, with the team fully focused on the future.

In terms of an actual rebuild, I’d say the 2022 season is year three of the present plan.

When will that plan come to fruition? Will that plan even come to fruition?

There are positive signs that the plan will work out, and possibly in the next two years. In my ZiPS analysis last week, I had the 2022 Pirates projected for 77 wins. That’s a big jump from their 2021 win total, and wouldn’t put them far from being a contender.

This week, I looked at a topic spanning off those projections: Negative WAR.

The focus of the topic was to see how much playing time the Pirates have historically given to players earning a negative WAR. The three articles breaking down 2007-2021 are below.

How Much Playing Time Goes to Replacement Level or Negative-WAR Players?

A History of the Pittsburgh Pirates Giving Away Wins: Part One

A History of the Pittsburgh Pirates Giving Away Wins: Part Two

There’s not a lot of groundbreaking stuff here. If a team gives a lot of playing time to someone producing negative value, they’ll have a hard time contending. If a team gives most of their playing time to positive producing players, they’ll have a better chance. That’s a simple concept.

The more valuable takeaway is finding the unavoidable. Even in their best seasons, the Pirates were giving 10% of playing time to replacement level or negative-WAR players. In the rebuilding years when they were close to contending, there was still about 15% playing time going to negative-WAR players.

I don’t take that into account for the ZiPS analysis. It’s impossible to predict which players will have a negative WAR, just as it’s impossible to know which players will outperform their projections. It’s not even possible to know whether the pitchers or hitters will be the ones exceeding or falling short of projections.

That said, if you’re projecting 15% playing time going to negative-WAR players, that would result in a drop from that projected 77 win total.

I don’t think it matters how many games the Pirates win in 2022. I think it only matters that they show positive signs that a winning season is on the way sooner than later. The Pirates as a team gave around 40% of playing time to negative-WAR players over the last two years. If they were able to improve to the 15-25% range, that would be a reassuring step forward, along with a better win total.

The 2022 team will feature a lot of younger players who will be part of the next contender. The challenge for the Pirates will be wading through all of the younger players to minimize the negative-WAR players going through the adjustments to the majors.

What gives me hope for this organization right now isn’t the amount of talent they’ve accumulated, or the single direction plan, or the hints of improvement coming in 2022. What gives me hope about this organization is how they are organizing this rebuild.

Go back to those trades by Neal Huntington when the Pirates were rebuilding but not really rebuilding.

You can’t complain about getting Bryan Reynolds for Andrew McCutchen. Getting Joe Musgrove for Gerrit Cole was a solid move that now leaves the Pirates with Endy Rodriguez, David Bednar, Hudson Head, Omar Cruz, and Drake Fellows.

I think you can take issue with the sequencing of the production from these moves.

Musgrove put up a 2.2 and 3.3 WAR in his first two seasons with the Pirates. He was MLB-ready, not as good as Cole, but better than a lot of the options the Pirates had to replace Cole.

Reynolds, meanwhile, was added out of A-ball, but made his debut with the Pirates in 2019 with a 3.2 WAR. By the time he had his breakout 5.5 WAR season in 2021, Musgrove was with another team.

The Pirates had Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen on the same team, and at their best, they led the Pirates to three playoff appearances. They were traded together, but the returns from those trades barely played on the same team.

This isn’t the way to rebuild a small market team.

By comparison, the Pirates traded Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon, and Musgrove last offseason. The players they received in the deals were largely sequenced, with a few immediate options for the majors, but with the higher upside all collected in the lower levels.

As I noted in the negative-WAR series, teams like the Pirates need impact-level talent to offset the inevitable negative-WAR guys. From those deals, Roansy Contreras is already emerging as a guy who could put up more than 3 WAR. Endy Rodriguez is also showing some promise as someone who can be more than an average starter in the majors. And they could play on the same team for years, along with Oneil Cruz, Henry Davis, and other potential impact guys.

You could make the argument that the Pirates were set up to sequence their rebuild when Cole and McCutchen were traded. However, that argument falls apart six months after those moves, when Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and Shane Baz were traded away, blowing up the sequence and putting the Pirates in win-now mode. It also didn’t help that most of the players who remained in the organization weren’t being developed to anything close to their full potential.

I have more faith in the current development operations, for reasons I’ll get into in a future series at Pirates Prospects. I’m encouraged that the current rebuilding efforts are more sequenced, where you could envision a future contender being built around the players in this farm system. That contender could even include Bryan Reynolds if the Pirates take a big step forward in 2022.

My biggest takeaway from the article series this week is that the Pirates could be entering the equivalent of their 2011-12 seasons, which were important steps toward contending. The hope would be that there aren’t many steps to take beyond the 2022 season, and that the window will remain open for longer than three years this time. What matters first is opening the window, and I think the latches have already been opened.