One of the great joys of being a baseball fan is that even after the final out of the final game is recorded, there’s still plenty to keep an eye on. Instead of the action taking place between the white lines, though, it’s taking place in front offices, training facilities and other venues far from the discerning eyes of fans and media alike. And those activities go a long way toward determining how your team will fare when the next season rolls around.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the current offseason for the Pirates is that fans have no idea what to expect. Over the last 12 years with Neal Huntington at the helm – and Bob Nutting holding the purse strings -- fans had at least a notion of what might transpire in any given offseason. In a nutshell, not nearly enough. But while Nutting still holds the purse strings, fans aren’t sure which direction new general manager Ben Cherington will take the team. And that makes this offseason intriguing.
Will Cherington engage in a full-scale rebuild and deal off key pieces like Starling Marte and/or Josh Bell? Will he keep the existing core and make only minor changes? Will he opt for something in between? Although Cherington has given several interviews since being hired as the franchise’s 13th GM on Nov. 18, he really hasn’t tipped his hand in that regard. He said during his introductory press conference that the four “pillars” that will determine the fate of the franchise would be “elite talent identification, acquisition, development and deployment,” and he has repeated that mantra several times since then. The day after that first press conference, in an interview that aired on MLB Network, Cherington talked about “growing” people – identifying players and building a culture and processes that, over time, would lead to winning baseball. He also acknowledged that things had changed in that regard even since he served as GM in Boston earlier in the decade.
“Opportunities for players to improve and make adjustments – that whole world is sort of upside down in the last few years, and I think that affects not only how we think about player development but how we think about evaluation,” Cherington said. “And perhaps how we’re identifying players, maybe how and where we’re seeing untapped potential and maybe an opportunity to tap a particular skill or grow a skill, so I think both sides of that coin have changed a little bit. And so as the general manager, the job, again, it gets back to people and trying to identify and help people grow and help people collaborate around those activities and that’s what we’re going to be focused on. Trying to build an exceptional group of people with a varied set of experiences and diverse backgrounds to collaborate and help us be great at those various activities.”
If you ask 10 people to read between those lines and decode the message with regard to Cherington’s plan for the existing roster, you might just get 10 different interpretations. But that tapping of a particular skill or helping to grow an existing skill, might indicate that he wants to take a good, hard look at what he has – and what he can get out of it – before he begins making wholesale changes.
The aforementioned Marte has gotten plenty of attention already in the offseason, with the Mets already being singled out as a possible trade destination for the 31-year-old outfielder. I wouldn’t be averse to that move; he’s been a solid contributor – aside from the occasional mental gaffe -- but I’m not sure there’s any potential that’s left to be tapped. Bell, though, is a different story. He enjoyed a breakout season last year, posting an OPS of .936 with 37 home runs and 116 RBIs. But after the All-Star break, Bell had a rough go of it, driving in just 32 runs with 10 home runs and a .780 OPS in 189 at-bats. And we’re all well aware of his defensive deficiencies.
Some in favor of a full-scale rebuild say that the 27-year-old Bell’s value will never be higher, and – given that he is represented by Scott Boras – now would be the best time to deal him since it’s unlikely he would ever sign a long-term extension to stay in Pittsburgh. I’ve been pulling for Bell since the franchise gave him 5 million reasons to pass up a scholarship to Texas in 2011 and sign with the club, and the first half of last season was as strong an offensive performance as I’ve seen this side of Barry Bonds or Mike Trout. Maybe Cherington, new manager Derek Shelton and a new coaching staff will be able to unlock even more of Bell’s potential, and for that reason, it might be wise to hang on to the big first baseman one more year. Admittedly, that would reduce his value a year from now if they decide to part ways at that time, because a potential trade partner would have one less season of control. But if he has another monster year in 2020, and this time remains consistent throughout, he’ll still fetch a nice return next winter – and give Pirates fans a season to remember in the meantime.