With the Pirates in the midst of a major reconstruction project, it’s only natural for fans to wonder how long it’s going to take until the club is ready to contend once again. Some who follow the team like to put actual dates on it, saying that while the upcoming 2021 campaign is likely to result in a woeful won-loss record – perhaps even 100 or more losses – brighter days could be arriving by 2023.
But is that realistic, given the tack that Ben Cherington is taking, and the fact that most prospects lost out on a complete season of competition due to COVID-19 in 2020?
When you look at the prospects that Cherington has been targeting in his biggest deals since taking over as general manager in the fall of 2019, the ones held in highest regard are young – very young. Several, in fact, are still in their teens or not far removed from them. Liover Peguero, one of two players obtained in the Starling Marte deal, just turned 20 on the final day of 2000. Brennan Malone, who came over in the same deal, turned 20 three months earlier. Quinn Priester – the Pirates most highly regarded pitching prospect – is a week younger than Malone. Eddy Yean, the key piece in the Josh Bell trade, is just 19 – the same age as Hudson Head, the outfield prospect who headlined the recent Joe Musgrove deal. (Both will turn 20 during the upcoming minor league season, assuming there is one.) All five rank among the Pirates’ top nine prospects, according to MLB Pipeline.
Added to the mix Sunday were four more prospects who came from the Yankees in the Jameson Taillon trade, the oldest of whom is Miguel Yajure, a right-handed pitcher who turns 23 in May. Roansy Contreras, another right-hander, is 21 while outfielder Canaan Smith turns 22 in April. The final prospect, infielder Maikol Escotto — who could turn out to be the best of the bunch – won’t turn 19 until early June.
Granted, the Pirates have a few “older” hopefuls – top prospect Nick Gonzales turns 22 in late May while Oneil Cruz, ranked No. 3, will play this season as a 22-year-old. So, it’s not at all unrealistic to think they will be making contributions to the big league club in that three-season timeframe. In fact, they’d better be contributing even sooner.
But what about those young guns mentioned earlier – and potentially those who might be coming in an anticipated trade for Adam Frazier? Is it realistic to think that Priester, Yean and Head will be ready to contribute on a regular basis three seasons from now, let alone make meaningful contributions to a pennant contender?
It seemed like the previous regime’s philosophy was to keep players in the minor leagues a little longer than many fans would have liked. It’s hard to generalize in that regard and – in retrospect – those incubation periods weren’t inordinately long. But where some clubs seemed fine with promoting a 22-year-old now and then, it seemed like the Pirates tended to wait a year or two longer before bringing their top prospects to the Show.
You could make the argument that there’s no sense in rushing prospects, and that doing so could result in damage that can’t be undone. And there’s always the service time angle – keeping prospects in the minor leagues delays the service clock from starting to tick and thus enables a club to keep a player for more of his prime seasons. When you’re running a franchise on a shoestring budget, that makes sense. I don’t like it one bit, but it makes sense financially.
All of this is pointing toward an important question: will Ben Cherington be willing to promote his prospects a little sooner than his predecessor? Will Hudson Head be roaming center field at PNC Park at the age of 22 – rather than 23 or 24? It might not seem like a big difference, but I’d rather see him – and some of his fellow prospects – wearing a big league uniform in 2023 than 2024 or 2025.
The answer to that question will be determined by how these prospects develop. The Huntington regime received poor marks all around in the player development area, but given last year’s COVID washout, we have no idea how effective Cherington’s development team will be. I have no problem with the moves that Cherington has made thus far and I’m willing to give him more rope than many, given his track record and the way he’s gone about his business so far. But I hope he and his staff aren’t averse to bringing talent to the major leagues a little sooner rather than a little later.
TAILLON TRADE: I’m generally not a big believer in evaluating winners or losers immediately after a trade is made, so I won’t attempt to do so here. But given Taillon’s injury history and the uncertainty that comes with pitchers trying to come back from a second Tommy John surgery, I’d say Cherington did well in dealing with the Yankees. Yajure and Contreras both were added to the 40-man roster and could see action in Pittsburgh this summer. In 20 starts (138 2/3 innings), Yajure, considered the Yankees’ seventh-best prospect by Baseball America, fashioned a 2.14 ERA in 2019, dividing his season between the Class A Florida State League and the Class AA Eastern League. Smith appears to be a highly regarded left-handed hitting outfielder with a solid hit tool and sneaky speed. Escotto has played just one season as a pro; that came in the Dominican Summer League in 2019 when he slashed .315/.429/.552 in 45 games (218 plate appearances). He hit eight home runs, drove in 26 and stole 13 bases. Several Yankees fan sites compared him to a young Jose Reyes.