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Can the Pirates ever put it together?

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St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates - Game One Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

It’s now been five full seasons since the Pittsburgh Pirates saw any action in the playoffs. In some ways, that 2015 season doesn’t seem so long ago. But in other ways, that piece of Pirates’ history couldn’t seem farther away. The only player remaining from that team is Gregory Polanco.

It’s been nearly 30 years since the Pirates and Atlanta Braves series in the NLCS. It’s been over 40 years since the team’s last World Series appearance. For many, it’s beginning to feel like the organization will never be able to reach the pinnacle of baseball again. Plenty of fans have only ever really known losing, save for those three years in the 2010s. Hordes of other fans have seen winning, but have been inundated by losing for so long that they’ve become numb to the plight, sometimes finding it difficult to even feign anger.

When my father was a kid in the ‘70s, he was searching for a Major League Baseball team to call his own. So, he did what many young kids might do: He asked his older brother, “Who’s good?” The eldest of four rattled off a list of teams that were competitive. My father picked the Pirates and it stuck. Little did he know, of course, he would see some winning but would ultimately have to suffer through years of futility.

In the present, we know the formula for how the Pirates can be competitive: Draft well, move assets during down years, and make savvy, cheap signings. Nobody expects the Pirates to be formidable adversaries to, well, anyone in baseball next season, and so we have to shift our focus to the longer term. If New York Mets’ fans are now excited about the sun rising over the horizon, Pirates’ fans are looking at next month on their schedule. If Cincinnati Reds’ fans are on the putting green, Pirates’ fans are one-third of the way to tee-off.

Enough with the analogies.

The Pirates have to focus on the first two categories I mentioned: Draft well, move assets. In a twist, the latter of those two will begin first, presumably with the movement of more valuable commodities, like Josh Bell and Adam Frazier, in addition to nearly anyone who’ll garner a return. Most fans realize this is the path to follow. As much as we may like some of the roster’s players, everybody not surnamed Reynolds, Hayes, or Keller, are expendable.

Despite Bell’s dreadful shortened 2020 season, his trade value should remain somewhat high. After all, with the strong 2019 he had, I’m not sure teams are willing to put that much stock into his lousy numbers which may have been the product of an odd season. Frazier, for a second example, doesn’t quite have the bat many hoped he would, but he is a Gold Glove finalist and that keeps his value higher, as well. The expectation, in my mind, is that those two guys could garner a top-30 prospect from somebody else’s system.

The next part of the formula is drafting. Let’s make this clear: Drafting in baseball is nothing like basketball or football. For many of these guys, teams and analysts have no idea what they’re truly getting. We see busts all the time. With that said, organizations are much better at evaluating players than they used to be. In theory, that’s why minor league baseball experienced the contraction of 42 teams this past year.

Under Ben Cherington, the Pirates have gone through one draft, with shortstop Nick Gonzalez being the headliner. Most seem to agree that Gonzalez appears to be a fine enough pick and could certainly become a productive major leaguer. But this upcoming draft is one that will really make headlines in Pittsburgh. Thanks to having the worst record in baseball, the Pirates were gifted — or, earned, in a way — the top pick in the 2021 draft. Many expect Kumar Rocker to go first in this draft, and I would be shocked if the Pirates took a different route.

According to MLB.com, the Pirates 2020 midseason minor league system ranking was 16th, down from the 15th spot before the season began. The Pirates have had strong systems in the past and made a series of blunders which yielded the current state of the organization, but the hope is that Cherington and company won’t make the same mistakes as the past regime.

Right now, things are too fluid and vague to truly gauge the viability of the Pirates in, say, 2025, so we’ll have to attempt to continue to piece things together as we go. At this juncture, to answer the question of whether or not the Pirates can ever “put it together,” we have to wait and see. The anticlimactic answer isn’t the exciting answer, but it’s often the truth.

And the truth is, whether or not the Pirates can contend, given their budgetary constraints — and, I know, “Nutting is cheap,” and, “He’s the problem,” but this is how it is, so it’s unnecessary to incessantly gripe about the owner — the answer will depend on how well Cherington manages the front office, player development, and the on-field product. He’s only had a year — and a supremely challenging one, at that — so we don’t really yet know what a Cherington-led Pirates’ organization looks like. Time will tell, but thus far, things seem to be improving.