PITTSBURGH — Ben Cherington is tearing it all down. All of it. It’s the only way the Pittsburgh Pirates general manager sees a way forward.
The process Cherington began when he took over 15 months ago is picking up speed after the Pirates sent starting pitcher Joe Musgrove to the San Diego Padres as part of a three-team trade that brought five prospects to Pittsburgh.
It’s a process that will likely have little short-term impact at the big-league level for a club that finished the truncated 2020 season with the worst record in the majors. Still, it’s one Cherington is convinced is the surest way to create sustainable success for a franchise that’s fallen on hard times since reaching the playoffs three straight seasons from 2013-15.
The Pirates need young talent. A lot of it. And while Cherington is well aware betting on teenagers and early 20-somethings doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything, the more of them the club has under its umbrella, the better chance some turn into impactful players in the big leagues down the road.
“We’re going to get to a time when our focus shifts, but we have to be really committed to building that talent base first,” Cherington said.
A base that Cherington considers in better shape now than it was when he took over from Neal Huntington in the fall of 2019. While the Pirates have splurged in the international free agent market – including giving 16-year-old outfield prospect Shalin Polanco a $2.35 million signing bonus last week – they’ve frequently relied on the team’s few proven players at the big league level to restock the minor league system.
In the last year, outfielder Starling Marte, first baseman Josh Bell and Musgrove have all been sent elsewhere in exchange for what the Pirates hope are players capable of eventually returning the team to contention in the NL Central.
The haul for Musgrove includes 19-year-old outfielder Hudson Head (a third-round pick in the 2019 first-year player draft whose stock has risen since), pitchers Drake Fellows and Omar Cruz and catcher Endy Rodriguez from the New York Mets. All three are 22 or younger.
“The younger they are, the further away they are,” Cherington said. “That does represent some risk, no doubt. There’s risk, there’s talent, there’s taking a subjective evaluation on the scouting side, there’s performance analysis, there’s character, there’s health. There’s just general upside, relative to that risk. We try to bake all that together into a stew and see where it leads us.”
Even if the path might take a while. Cherington was adamant the decisions to ship Bell and Musgrove were not financially motivated. Musgrove, Pittsburgh’s opening day starter in 2020, earned a pay bump to $4.45 million for 2021 while Bell, an All-Star in 2019, will make $6.35 million this season in Washington after both players signed one-year deals last week.
“There was no need to move payroll for the sake of moving payroll,” Cherington said. “There was no request to do that.”
Still, the departure of Musgrove and Bell means just two players – outfielder Gregory Polanco and second baseman Adam Frazier – will make more than $4 million in 2021. Cherington hinted the Pirates will use some of the money freed up by the trades to bring in a veteran or two before spring training begins next month. Musgrove’s absence creates a hole near the top of the rotation behind Jameson Taillon.
“We’ve got oars in the water so to speak in both free agency and trade,” Cherington said. “We’d like to add. To some extent as you all know, at least the free agency part of the offseason has been slower I’d say. So we’ll see at some point. I expect that will pick up, now that we’re past arbitration, that will pick up.”
Still, the Pirates will enter 2021 very young and largely anonymous save for Taillon, third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes and left fielder Bryan Reynolds. Cherington stressed he and manager Derek Shelton will have to continue to build a positive culture while accepting there may be more downs than ups at the big-league level in the near future.
“To some extent, it’s up to the two of us to help lead us toward that environment I talked about, even if we do have some tougher outcomes in the short-term,” Cherington said. “That would be the simple thing. We have to continue to work toward being great at the things we can control and trust if we do that over time that talent will develop, keep getting better, we’ll be able to add to it at the right times and that will help us win.”