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Pragmatic Approach to Building a Winner

How to change the course of the franchise

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the wildcard game against the Cubs in 2015, the Pirates were a fairy tale story in the making. The story of a small market team with 98 wins which still was not enough to win the division. The Pirates had to go the long way to earn a championship ticket; a blue-collar city with a blue-collar team facing a league villain in Jake Arrieta.

Arrieta at the time was one of, if not the best pitcher in the league that season. Attacking the Pirate fan base via twitter this was like a blockbuster film that could not have been scripted any better.

For those that don’t remember, Arrieta was attacking the Pirates fan base via Twitter

As we all know, the 2015 season did not have a happy ending and led the fan base to wonder what could have been. Since then, the team has since not accumulated more than 88 wins.

The front office has devolved a one time 98-win team with horrible trades and payroll cuts. Ownership did not reinvest money into the team and still have not to this day, content to just getting by duct taping the roster together in the cheapest way possible.

The future is still bright for the Pirates, with the caveat of making the right moves, of course. Pittsburgh has a strong young core to build off of. They need to follow the proceeding steps in order for the team to move towards bring winning baseball back to Pittsburgh.

Step 1: Sell at the deadline

An unpopular opinion is Pittsburgh must sell at the deadline next month. Not only sell but sell big. The key to this is getting good return for these trades and bringing in young talent.

The core of this team is Bryan Reynolds and Josh Bell. The Pirates need to build on these two to move forward successfully. Reynolds was part of the return for the former face of the franchise, Andrew McCutchen. This was a hard pill to swallow but the McCutchen trade was a huge win for the Pirates.

Reynolds is posting a historic Rookie season since being called up in late April. With 188 ABs thus far on the season Reynolds is hitting a slash of .362/.418/.564/.982 with 6 HR and 28 RBIs building towards a Rookie of the year campaign.

Reynolds is one case of the Pirates finding value. Pittsburgh is not known for having a stacked farm system and that has been a huge reason why this team sits in neutral. It’s time to build from the ground up.

This means parting with some major assets. Not digging too deep but AAA and AA guys that are a year away from being called up. Many fans do not like this approach but what’s the alternative? Trying to be .500? The reality of how ownership is and the parameters the Pirates have to work within, selling at the deadline is the best thing to do for the future.

Step 2: Sell the right players

The question that the front office needs to ask themselves is who will provide biggest return? The people they should be shopping next month are Starling Marte and Felipe Vazquez. Others like Adam Frazier, Melky Cabrera and Corey Dickerson could be added to this list, however they probably won’t provide the type of prospects that the team needs to turn this around but could still be dealt.

Marte is very valuable player who in many eyes has yet to turn the corner. Marte, to his credit, has had deceptively good numbers every year and is one of the most consistent players in the league. However, Marte is not the future of the Pirates and his production would best be served in the form of two or three high end prospects for a team that wants to go all in at the deadline.

The team that comes to mind is the Phillies. They do need some OF help with McCutchen being out for the season and Marte would be a better long term addition for a team on the rise. Marte has two more team options at an affordable price and could be a very interesting asset on the trade block. The Phillies have a top-15 farm system and could provide a few prospects for the Pirates who need to to rebuild and restock their system.

This one hurts even saying but the Pirates could command a bidding war for Vazquez. Felipe is one of the best in all of baseball and is under team control on a reasonable rate of $7.25 million per year through 2022. Teams could be willing to part with high end prospects to aquire one of the most consistent closer in all of baseball. Teams like the Red Sox, Twins, and Dodgers might be willing to overpay for a guy of this level of talent who will be under control for four more years.

The Pirates are not winning with these guys and getting some great young prospects to build on, much like they did in 2013-2015, is the only way the team will move forward successfully.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Step 3: Let your pitchers pitch

The Pirates use an outdated pitching philosophy— pitching for ground balls. This leads pitchers to overuse fastballs, which leads them to becoming predictable with their pitching sequence. It can also hinder the development and growth of young pitchers throughout the minor league system.

When a young pitcher is forced into this style of pitching, not allowing them to utilize other stronger pitches can truncate their potential. Over the past few years we’ve seen that when pitchers leave this organization, they seem to have much greater success with other teams.

Gerrit Cole was a great pitcher in Pittsburgh, but once he was allowed to use his curveball more than just going to the well with the fastball, he has grown into the ace that the Pirates always wanted.

Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow are a few notable pitchers to achieve success once leaving the Pirates outdated strategy behind. They both have accomplished this by rely on other pitches outside trying to get ground balls, using a better pitch selection, and developing multiple threat pitches.

The Pirates came into the season thinking that the pitching staff was the strength of this team with the need to find away to get better at hitting. As mentioned, people feel that Bell took a step back in his hitting production so the front office went after one of the best hitting coaches on the market, Rick Eckstein, which has seemed to give the offense some new life. Eckstein has completely changed the batters this season, moving from 11th in the league in BA in 2018 to 7th in 2019.

Sometimes change is a good thing as a coach’s message can get stale. As much as we all love Uncle Ray (Pirates Pitching Coach Ray Searage), it might be time to go a new direction. I do not blame the pitching failures solely on Searage, more so the philosophy across the board. However, we have not seen the once described “pitching whisperer” in some time. A change in pitching philosophy might do wonders for the Pirates.

Step 4: Fielding a winner

Projected lineup for the Pirates around the diamond around 2021 could be as followed:

1B - Josh Bell, 2B - Kevin Newman, SS - Cole Tucker/ Oneil Cuz, 3B - Ke’Bryan Hayes and Colin Moran, C - Elias Diaz.

Listed above I have Newman shifted to 2nd Base as Cole Tucker is the SS of the future. Newman has been putting together a very solid rookie campaign and has found a home as a lead-off hitter posting .314/.367/.430. The rest of the lineup listed is very unproven but highly regarded with prospect evaluators.

Moving to the outfield, the Pirates projected future lineup would be the following:

LF - Jason Martin, CF - Bryan Reynolds, RF - Gregory Polanco and swing Outfielder Travis Swaggerty.

Swaggerty might take a corner infielder spot along side Reynolds come the 2021/2022 season. A former top 10 pick in the 2018 draft, the 21 year old former South Alabama product is currently playing high A ball for the Pirates.

Starting Pitching of the future Rotation:

SP - Mitch Keller, Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove and Chad Kuhl.

No I didn’t forget about Chris Archer, but I took him off the list. To the Pirates credit, they made a big move to bring him in and it just hasn’t worked out. Archer’s contract is set for $8.5 million next year with a $2 million buyout. If Archer cannot find a way to get back to his days in the Tampa uniform I do not predict he will be in the starting rotation in Pittsburgh come 2021.

What about JAMO? Jameson Taillon has sadly been taken off the list for the future of the team as tough as it is to write. Jamo is a great kid with a ton of upside but he cannot stay healthy. Most recently from Joe Perrotto of DK Pittsburgh Sports:

Other than Mitch Keller, the Pirates do not have any top prospects to add to the pitching rotation for the future. Keller is on the fringe of making the 25 man roster for next season. The Pirates at the deadline need to target outfield depth and pitching prospects to add to their rotation for the coming years.

Conclusion:

With the depth chart provided above, if the Pirates successfully trade for someone to challenge Polanco and/or Martins spot in the lineup, as well as 2nd rotation starter upgrade for the pitching rotation, the team could be a young and solid to build upon for years to come.

The foundation needs to be built first and it has to start this trade deadline. The predictable act of repeatedly losing players and not adding any one in free agency of value will not work to get to the playoffs. Tearing it down and building it back up is the only way to compete in a division full of winners and star-studded teams.

If the Pirates really want to compete, and I mean truly compete, then they need to commit to rebuilding fully for the future. Make smart baseball moves. Build a team like you did in 2013 and bring winning baseball back to Pittsburgh.