From the moment Bob Nutting decided to move on from Frank Coonelly and subsequently Neal Huntington, fans piled expectation on the new, yet unnamed, management team. Hell, I even did it.
Many of us have excitedly ingested the news as the staff painstakingly took form, and some expected a paradigm shift as yet unprecedented in the game, let alone the Pirates. So, it stands to reason the Winter Meetings passing by with little more than rumors would raise some eyebrows. Sure, plenty reported that we should probably expect exactly that as Ben Cherington started building relationships with his counterparts and for that matter his own employees. But one move in particular made me in particular believe we might see some, you know, team building. Cutting ties with Elias Diaz. When the Pirates chose to move on from the former heir apparent catcher, I felt it was a bold move, one that wouldn’t be made without a plan, because no matter your thoughts on Diaz he was at the very least a controllable and competent catcher. Surely, they had a target in mind nearly ready to put ink to paper, absolutely they had a trade almost all worked out to bring in that big prospect to man the position for years. Maybe newly-signed catcher, Luke Maile, was the guy they had in mind all along, but this right now feels a bit like extending yourself to buy Christmas presents because you know Aunt Suzie gives you 500 bucks every year. But, what if she doesn’t this year?
Another head scratcher for me was the overt way they chose to speak of potential return for Starling Marte. It was limiting and if you indeed don’t get a good package offered before spring it will hang over Marte and the team like an axe until the deadline approaches.
There are very few people privy to a majority of the conversations held at the meetings, even fewer once everyone scatters to their own corner of the map, but right now optics are extremely important. No GM should spend energy trying to please fans, head to almost any message board to see our varied and often opposing opinions on just about everything, but a new regime can set a tone that will last for years. Right now, it’s a dial tone.
Its entirely plausible that Mr. Cherington was brought in so late in the game that getting a handle on all the moving parts and evaluating what is here wasn’t doable. There is a possibility that he wanted to see the type of players Derek Shelton wants on his ballclub. And there is also this, the possibility that Ben and his staff actually like the team as constructed and want to see them play, healthy. MLB is a what have you done for me lately league and fresh eyes might be seeing past the disaster that was 2019. Think of it this way, Corey Kluber struggled last season, so Cleveland is probably fine with moving on from him, but the Rangers feel like they just got their ace.
They might want to actually evaluate who can do what with new coaching in place. It’s possible they think leaving the team mostly in-tact but healthy could result in a better outcome and if Taillon was one of the wounded warriors with an eye toward a return I might be inclined to agree. That said, there is no rush to move anyone really, deals will still be available at the deadline and even into the next off season as almost all the discussed players still have at least two seasons of control.
Heading into 2019 the Pirates pitching staff was touted as potentially the class of the NL Central. This was long before names like Keller and Brault were thought to be integral parts. Injury decimated the staff and those who remained healthy were thrust into roles that don’t best suit them. As I look at the staff the Pirates will seemingly send to Bradenton in February, I have a very hard time imagining them being better in 2020. Keller for Taillon isn’t an even swap, even with the potential upside Mitch oozes. Archer could conceivably return to the best form of himself, but isn’t that just a decent number 2 or 3? Musgrove seems ready to make a jump, but consistency is still not his friend. Kuhl is returning from TJ surgery and that always brings questions. Brault was the most pleasant surprise of last season but can he do it again? Will he even get a chance? Williams has shown the ability to be a dominant starting pitcher, he has also shown the ability to serve up gopher balls at an alarming clip.
Not bringing anyone in to help solidify this staff, and it's early, would signify to me they believe Taillon is the ace moving forward. I’m not sure I can make that leap. Does he have the talent? Oh yeah. The best ability however is availability and through no fault of his own it's one he lacks. If I’m correct in my assumption and they have an eye toward 2021, a misplaced bet on Taillon could set the team back for five years or longer. Sometimes you have to make your own luck and there is no rule that you can’t have two top-tier pitchers.
For all I know, as I put the finishing touches on this piece, Ben is shaking hands with Hyun-Jin Ryu's agent and the Bucs will have a real veteran, ace type pitcher for the next 4 years, but something tells me not to hold my breath. I think we are about to watch this team largely return intact for 2020, with a few tweaks. If it works out, Cherington will be praised for his patience and not caving to the cries of the masses to demolish what Neal built. If it doesn’t, we will add one more year to the history books and decreased the value of some of the people rumored to be on the block. The rebuild will start after another season and trust for the new management team will immediately start to smell familiar.
There are times when doing the right thing isn’t the most popular choice, perhaps this is one of those times. It’s hard to think that without adding in the caveat that its equally possible the Pirates are potentially wasting a season. If the deals aren’t there, fine, none of that makes it look anywhere near the change many fans are hungry for, and the team needs to restock the minor league system.
Enthusiasm for the new front office is still pretty high as evidenced by the outpouring of support for hiring Don Kelley as Bench coach. That support will surely wane if the team fails to improve or rebuild, in many ways leaving the team intact might be the boldest move they could make.
Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007