First Pitch: The Argument For the Pirates Rebuilding Makes the Most Sense

I can’t keep my head up.

Years from now we’re going to look back on the moment Neal Huntington was fired and we’re going to forget one key element: Bob Nutting voiced his support for Huntington a month before firing him. Does it matter now? Probably not much, if it even matters at all.

Could it be we got lost in the summer?

There was still that month. A month where no one knew the direction the Pirates were going in. Neal Huntington was still the General Manager, but we didn’t know what would be changing. Something had to be changing, right? Did anyone watch the AL Wild Card game or any Rays or Astros playoff game?

Well I know you know that it’s over.

The lack of an obvious direction was the primary issue I brought up over the last few years about the Huntington-led Pirates. They were trying to win-now while also trying to focus on winning for the long-term — a strategy that was possible for small market teams before large market teams started hiring away the smartest minds from the small market teams and taking the same approach.

But you’re still in,
Treading water

We don’t know what might have changed if Huntington remained the GM. We can guess, based on his comments before his firing, that he wasn’t planning any massive overhauls of how the Pirates operated.

What we do know is there will be a new GM, perhaps sooner than originally expected. That GM will need to pick a path. Nutting will need to support that path in a financial way that recognizes windows and the rebuilding process of small market teams.

But there needs to be a clear path first. Rebuild. Or Win-now.

I covered win-now yesterday. Today we’re focusing on my preferred choice in this situation: Rebuilding.

Rebuilding is one of those words that has a wide array of definitions and meanings, yet has been used in baseball context over the years in such a way that it only means one thing.

“Great! Here comes another five year plan!”

Before we go any further, I’m here to tell you that the days of five-year rebuilding plans are over. If you need five years to rebuild in today’s MLB, you’ve done a poor job of rebuilding.

The five year plan was largely a thing when small market teams were building up their farm systems to not only win, but win at a sustainable rate.

The goal was to have a continuous wave of prospects arriving in the majors. When a guy got close to free agency, you’d trade him to restock the system and bring up the next big prospect to take his place. When you had a player departing, you’d replace him with an established player, or by going for value with reclamation projects, or trading your prospect depth for a guy you couldn’t otherwise afford on the open market.

This dream scenario sets you up with an endless wave of competitive teams, no long rebuilds, and a theorized chance at the playoffs every year. I’d say it’s the Neal Huntington dream, but really it’s just the dream of any small market team prior to 2015.

The good news is that Bob Nutting has addressed the need to move on from the previous attempts to contend.

“I think the era of being able to be ‘let’s get to .500 and see how it works’ cannot work in today’s environment,” Nutting told Alan Saunders. “Look at our division. We don’t have a division that’s going to reward that.”

Nutting is absolutely right about that path to winning not being feasible for the Pirates. If only he had someone telling him that two years ago, repeatedly challenging the idea that the Pirates could still win with what I like to call their “no windows” approach.

I shared that recent quote from Nutting and the story from before the 2018 season not so that I could try to explain how my head exploded when I first read Nutting’s words.

Rather, I shared those two conflating views from Nutting as a sign that he really has no clue what is happening inside the game of baseball, which means the Pirates are in for a long, painful ride if they find someone else who is still following the old path for small market teams to contend.

Hopefully the Pirates find someone capable of rebuilding the franchise in a modern way. To be honest, it kind of feels like someone is attempting professional axe throwing for the first time, and doing it while blindfolded, and honestly guys someone could get hurt, this isn’t safe.

Let’s say they do that. And let’s say they commit fully to a rebuild. What does that rebuild look like?

The biggest issue the Pirates had with prospects was the development, especially in the transition to the majors. They could definitely find talent, and as a result they are still stocked with some pretty good talent throughout the system, although their depth is as thin as I’ve seen in years.

This all hit me while writing up the top 30 reports for Baseball America, and working on our rankings. I was writing about young prospects like Quinn Priester, Tahnaj Thomas, Sammy Siani, Ji-Hwan Bae, Braxton Ashcraft, Travis MacGregor, Calvin Mitchell, and so on. I was thinking about how this is the makings of a nice lower-level group, with plenty of other names you could add to the mix.

These players are part of the group that could contain the next Pirates impact prospect, hopefully with better big league results this time. You can start to dream about Priester and Thomas arriving early enough to spend a year or two in the rotation with Keller. Perhaps the Pirates extend Keller to keep him around with one or both of those guys a bit longer. Maybe MacGregor, Ashcraft, or someone else emerges as an additional option between now and then.

The above players are all lower level guys who don’t project to arrive for a few years. The Pirates also have guys in the upper levels. Mitch Keller, Bryan Reynolds, and Kevin Newman are already getting established in the majors. Keller and Reynolds are under control through 2025, and Newman through 2024.

Those three are soon to be joined by Cole Tucker and Ke’Bryan Hayes at some point in 2020, and Oneil Cruz and Cody Bolton likely in 2021 or 2022.

If you look at how the years of service line up in this very rushed and very simple table below, you’ll notice something. That block of years from 2023-2025 looks like the prime time to build for, hoping that everything might click a year early in 2022.

2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 2026 2027 2028
Keller X X X X X X
Reynolds X X X X X X
Newman X X X X X
Tucker X X X X X X
Cruz X X X X X X
Bolton X X X X X X
Priester X X X X X X
Thomas X X X X X X
Bae X X X X X X


Anyone who is currently on the roster, and who is not under control for at least two of those three years should be traded in the rebuild process. The Pirates should target talented prospects above all, but focus on talented prospects who are also expected to be in the majors during this window.

Everything should be about building for that 2023-2025 window, and having the contingency that it could start in 2022.

If contending is like a hand of poker, then the old small market method would be the process of paying to see the flop every time, regardless of cost and regardless of your hand, because you never know what could happen.

The new small market way uses as much data and technology as possible to make sure you know what is most likely to happen. Then, you plan accordingly, pushing your chips all in when your highest probability opportunities presents themselves.

Small market teams face an interesting juggling act challenge these days. They not only need to rebuild, and then hope those prospects live up to expectations in the majors, but they also need to sequence the rebuild so that they have as many potential impact guys under control during their window to contend as possible.

The Pirates have a much better window opening around 2022-2023 than they do in 2020-2021. They can also add talented players to that window in an easier way, trading off Starling Marte, Josh Bell, and anyone else of value and not under team control beyond the next few years.

The argument over which path the Pirates should take is really a simple one. Which path has the most talent? It’s clearly the path to rebuilding, thanks to the Pirates already having a head start in the talent department for the future.




By John Dreker

Five former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date, all of them were pitchers. Starting with the most recent first…

Gene Garber, pitcher for the 1969-70 and 1972 Pirates. He pitched briefly in each of his three seasons in Pittsburgh before being traded for pitcher Jim Rooker. Garber made 20 appearances with the Pirates and another 911 over the next 16 seasons. He won 96 games and picked up 218 saves.

Ted Wilks, pitcher for the 1951-52 Pirates. He went 8-10, 3.19 in 155 innings with Pittsburgh. He came over in a seven-player trade with the Cardinals in June of 1951 and was traded to the Cleveland Indians next August. He twice led the NL in games pitched while with the Cardinals.

Jack Hallett, pitcher for the 1942-43, and 1946 Pirates. In between stints with the Pirates, he spent 30 months serving in the Navy during WWII. Hallett went 6-10, 3.06 in 185 innings with the Pirates. He also pitched briefly for the 1940-41 White Sox and 1948 Giants.

Ray Steineder, pitcher for the 1923-24 Pirates. In two starts and 18 relief appearances with the Pirates, mostly during the 1923 season, he had a 2-1, 5.15 record in 57.2 innings. His only other big league time came later in 1924 for the Phillies.

Pete Meegan, pitcher for the 1885 Alleghenys. Back before they moved to the National League, Meegan was a starting pitcher during the 1885 season in the American Association. In 16 starts, he pitched 14 complete games. He had a 7-8, 3.39 record in 146 innings. His only other big league time was 22 starts for the 1884 Richmond Virginians of the American Association.