For so many years in the earlier part of the decade, we knew that former general manager Neal Huntington was attempting to count cards at the blackjack table; how else was he ever going to get the Pirates close to contention without taking a few risks and pushing forward past the current cutting edge of sabermetrics. This led to leadership in the defensive shift revolution, as well as successes in the department of pitching reclamation projects.
Infamously, however, Huntington’s proverbial run of busting the dealer (small market teams successfully keeping competitive pace with big market teams) came to an end after 2015 and was further mired by a fall from grace that saw continued devotion to a way of doing baseball business that became quickly outdated.
So, now what?
Ben Cherington was tasked with the job of getting the Pirates back up to speed. This saw the dismissal of manager Clint Hurdle and a souring clubhouse message replaced by Derek Shelton and a new wave of youthful enthusiasm injected into the precious baseball locker room. Younger managers are the latest fad. Cherington’s early reign also saw the firing of pitching coach Ray Searage and his one size fits all approach to pitching in favor of Oscar Marin his data-driven mindset. Data-driven hurlers are the latest fad. Cherington proceeded by trading away center fielder Starling Marte for what many believe to be two lottery ticket prospects with high upside instead of major league talent. Projectable prospects and stocking up on talent is the latest fad.
The team and the organization is catching up, and already has caught up to the rest of baseball in some categories. The question now becomes how they advance their position from the middle of the pack to the forefront once more.
I believe the answer lies somewhere in between another on-the-field revolution paired with a new way of conducting business in the front office that has only worked thus far as a hypothetical.
For one thing, the home run revolution continues to evolve itself as hitters begin to unlock more of their potential and pitchers likewise begin to adapt to these changes. Hitting coach Rick Eckstein will be sure to stay on top of that trend if not by his own intuition then at the behest of the forward-thinking Cherington who seeks to maximize the franchise’s potential at every possible juncture. There’s no doubt that Marin will likewise be tasked with how to combat the advances hitters are making by diving into advanced analytics of his own. In my opinion however, the Pirates will make their way back to Moneyball status on the backs of offensive advancement.
The other kind of revolution I discussed earlier takes place behind the scenes, behind the closed doors of Cherington’s inner sanctum flanked by high-ranking lieutenants and trusted confidants. This is where the mad baseball science will commence as the calm, cool, and collected GM attempts to implement a consistent winning strategy that will allow the Pirates to compete for years on end.
Terrifying? Of course, because you’re thinking about Huntington’s jarring comments about building a “consistent” and “sustainable” winner in Pittsburgh. I understand the fright and concern, but this is not so with Cherington.
The former Red Sox general manager is building the beginnings of a new kind of organizational cycling machine; he aims to build a winning major league roster that is able to compete for World Series trophies continuously by way of supplanting from the minors with consistent waves of talent. Rather than follow the Huntington model of building a .500 team and trying to luck into a playoff berth and a surprising run to the title, Cherington seeks to build a high-end team on the field at PNC Park that is continuously fed by young, talented players coming up from the minors. When major league players get old, their replacement will already be waiting in the wings. When the major league roster lacks talent at a specific position, a talent can be traded for from a strength in the minors.
The indispensable players will be signed longer term and earlier on in their careers if deemed critical to the team’s success; those with inflated prices or stubborn agents
(Thanks Scott!) will be let go with confidence placed in their highly touted youthful replacements.
This kind of cyclical system, in theory, would reduce the need for boom-bust years and shorter windows of contention. Near perfect execution results in extended windows of competitive opportunity, longer than that of recent small market successes in Kansas City, Oakland, or even somewhat Milwaukee and Tampa Bay. But that’s the ticket; there needs to be near perfect execution, and this plan only works in a hypothetical state as of yet.
Maybe Cherington is a mad scientist. Maybe he’s the answer. Maybe he’s a bust. Maybe he’s a lunatic. But the Pirates need to get back to the cutting edge of the revolutionary nature of baseball, and he may just get them there.