Language is evolutionary.
Words take on different meanings through the passage of time, and with the different circumstances that time can offer.
You can also manipulate the meaning of words for public relations purposes.
That’s what I thought the Pittsburgh Pirates were doing when General Manager Ben Cherington insisted that the team is going through a “Build” rather than a “Rebuild.”
If you ask me, the Pirates are going through a Rebuild.
They were one of the best teams in the game for a very short time in 2013-15, and that got them as far as one NLDS series loss and two other Wild Card Game losses. At the very least, the Pirates need to Rebuild to that level before they can Build beyond that result.
From Cherington’s perspective, a “Build” approach makes sense. He wasn’t here when this team slowly was torn down and declined. He arrived at a time when there were very few players left to spark a Rebuild approach, and more players in the system that could be added to in order to Build.
The latter, of course, ran counter to the ridiculous narrative that the Pirates didn’t have any help in the system when Cherington took over. While he’s done an outstanding job at adding a lot of talent in a short amount of time, that talent joins players who were already in the system like Quinn Priester, Oneil Cruz, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Bryan Reynolds, and of course the MLB players who brought back prospects like Endy Rodriguez, Roansy Contreras, Jack Suwinski, and others.
We could argue the semantics of the word “Rebuild” versus “Build” for what the Pirates are doing, and really, it wouldn’t matter. They have a simple goal: Win in the majors. Preferably sooner than later. They obviously need to Build up to that from where they currently are.
To get there, they need a functioning Player Development system. I’ve argued that the problem under Neal Huntington’s run wasn’t a lack of talent, but an inability to develop that talent. I feel like this has been confirmed at this point. The Pirates are getting praise for their 2020 and 2021 drafts — and rightfully so. Those drafts are run by and scouted by the same people who have been overseeing those roles for most of the last decade.
The scouting department brought in talent. The Player Development system didn’t develop that talent effectively.
I’ve been writing about what the Pirates are doing different under new farm director John Baker. They’re taking a more individualized approach to development, and are focusing on growth mindsets. I’m encouraged by the changes, and what I’ve been hearing from the players since Cherington and Baker took over.
I think the Pirates are on the right path to fixing their biggest issue from the last run, and that could allow them to “Build” to being the type of contender that hasn’t been seen in the baseball side of Pittsburgh for over 40 years.
But let’s look at that word again in another context.
Is it possible that this organization has never been properly assembled?
I know that’s a bold statement for an organization that had a 20-year losing streak, followed by a busted bottle rocket blow-up of the first build, leading to four winning seasons and 25 losing seasons since 1992.
Baseball changed in the mid-90s. There was a growing divide between the haves and the have nots. Some of the small market teams emerged with innovative methods of scouting and player development to gain an advantage.
The Pirates weren’t one of those teams.
When they became one of those teams, they weren’t exactly innovating. They were more early adopters, going heavy on an approach that teams like the Rays and others had used first.
There were some cases when the Pirates were innovating, or trying to innovate. They found themselves behind the league trends once again in 2016, and saw key members of their MLB scouting and analytics departments poached by other teams.
I think the goal for the Pirates should be getting to a point where they’re mentioned in the same sentence as the Tampa Bay Rays and the Oakland Athletics. That’s obviously never been an area this organization has reached in the last almost three decades.
From my perspective as someone covering this team since 2009, they’ve been in a slow Build.
Neal Huntington did an outstanding job at modernizing the organization. Under Huntington, the Pirates added a Dominican Academy and increased their international scouting and budget for players. They overhauled the amateur scouting department after the first few drafts, again with most of that group today still being leftover from what Huntington left. And while the development approach in the minors was cookie-cutter, they did a good job of bringing in talented coaches — many of which are still around — and bringing in new technology around the system for identifying player strengths. That technology has now been made more easily available to the players under the new individualized approach.
Neal Huntington built this organization up from a very low point. However, his Build fell short of what the Pirates need to be one of the top small market teams.
Now, it’s up to Ben Cherington to finish that Build, and I think he’s on the right track, especially with Baker overseeing the minors. In my time covering this organization, Baker is one of the smartest minds I’ve talked with, offering a unique combination of MLB playing experience, performance psychology knowledge, and a willingness to be experimental in a game that typically rewards experimental approaches from smart baseball people.
The Pirates are in a Build. In my lifetime, they’ve been a World Series contender for just a small fraction of time. In my lifetime, they’ve mostly been dormant, falling behind every other organization, and never really getting the foundation needed to Build to being that World Series contender.
I feel like Neal Huntington provided the foundation.
Ben Cherington is now overseeing the Build.