“I don’t know I think we’ve done absolutely everything you can do to prepare for the day. I’ve updated our contacts, I have gotten quotes from suppliers. I have sent out an E-vite for our big grand opening pancake luncheon. Six yeses, one maybe, only eleven noes. Um, and 788 not yet replieds. But of that group, 782 have viewed it.”
Planning is difficult.
There are some things for which you can’t plan.
If you’ve planned enough, you know which things exactly that you can’t plan for.
If you planned correctly, you attempted to plan for those things which can’t be planned for, and failed a few times.
Eventually, you’re just a crazy mess — standing in the kitchen of your condo wearing your bath robe, whipping up eggs for endless batches of French toast, all to build up your confidence to finally take that dive into the unknown.
I have a lot of respect for what Ben Cherington or any MLB General Manager does.
Good or bad, every General Manager has a plan. Every General Manager hopes their plan will result in a World Series.
Every General Manager’s plan is just business.
It’s starting with a common end goal, implementing a specific path to reach that goal, and eventually starting down that path.
What we’ve seen from Ben Cherington and the Pittsburgh Pirates so far is the Planning stage.
They’ve added prospects to a large degree. That has come through the draft, and trading away anyone with value at the MLB level.
They’ve restructured the player development system, and boosted the scouting department — both moves to strengthen the farm system for the future. They have also focused on developing coaches, which is a positive improvement over the past.
As was pointed out a few times in our Roundtable, the Pirates to this point have done a pretty standard rebuild under Cherington thus far. We could argue the semantics of the quality of job he has done, comparatively. I would say this approach is better than Huntington’s approach — which makes sense, as Cherington is building on top of the organization that Huntington was building up.
I would not say that the approach from Cherington is different than Huntington.
Really, it shouldn’t be to this point. What happens going forward will show the true effectiveness of this plan. However, the things that work or don’t work are probably already in place right now.
I thought that Pirates outfielder Jack Suwinski had a great thought on the result of routines when I spoke with him for my MLB Mindset column.
“You’re either going to go one direction or the other, and once you start going it’s too late, because you’ve created those habits that kick you in that direction.” – Jack Suwinski
That’s true. The planning process is all about knowing the direction in which you are heading, and the steps you need to take to get there. Once you’re rolling, it’s difficult to change things on the fly.
At this point, the direction for the Pirates isn’t set, but they have most likely laid out a path they believe will lead to a World Series.
What we’ve seen so far has been more positive than negative, and has me thinking they are slowly going in the right direction.
However, I think you could argue that there have been some cracks exposed in the plan, which could trip them up down the path.
Today, I’ll be exploring some of those potential early cracks.
Michael: Hey Ryan? [Ryan watches Montgomery Flea Market ad on YouTube] Could you get to that copy from before?
Ryan: Pam’s better at that stuff
Pam: That is so insulting.
Ryan: How is it insulting to say that you’re good at something?
Pam: Because the thing you’re saying I’m good at, is pushing a big green button a bunch of times.
Ryan: I’m not judging it, it’s like … I could run GM but I couldn’t fix a car. It’s not saying one is better than the other.
Pam: Seriously? Because it sounds like one of those is better than the other.
Ryan: What the hell? [Michael closed his laptop]
Michael: Listen. Listen listen listen listen listen listen. I need someone to make a copy of this. Because I don’t make copies, I’m the boss. Got it? I make originals.
Ryan: Yeah I make originals too.
Pam: Shut up!
Michael: Stop it stop it! Bickering! Stop it!
Toby: [from bathroom above] Not much? What’s up with you? Nah it’s okay. I’m in the bathroom. Hey you been watching Damages this year? It’s so good. No, you gotta tune in, it’s as good as anything on HBO. [sound of pissing] Hey does blue go with tan?
Michael: Would someone just make the copy?
Toby: I have like, like a blue shirt? I don’t wear a lot of colors, I have a lot of tan. Uh huh.
Michael: Just make that copy okay?
The Pirates didn’t exactly need to rebuild their player development system.
They did need to supplement it with a new way of thinking.
In a way, they just needed a better copy.
The Pirates already had good methods of teaching players how to play the game, make adjustments, and develop into nationally recognized top prospects.
What they didn’t have was a good method for developing the minds inside those prospect bodies — to a point where they could see themselves as winning Major League players in Pittsburgh.
The biggest and most positive change I’ve seen for the Pirates has been the addition of John Baker as farm director. Baker — a former MLB catcher over seven seasons — has implemented a more player-driven development program.
Giving power to the players over their careers is an obvious positive.
The bigger positive has been the almost palpable shift in levity across the entire system.
If Kyle Stark’s farm system was the 1950s, John Baker’s is the 1990s.
The farm system under Stark was more strict, and definitely top-down direction — with organization-driven development which the players had limited influence over. The problem with such leadership is that it can leave out talented players who might not respond well to such rigid structure.
Baker’s system isn’t without walls, but is more open. It’s not the opposite extreme, but a push to more levity.
That’s good. If the Pirates went from one end of the spectrum to the other — from strict and rigid to relaxed and lenient — they’d probably end up losing touch with some of the player types who excelled under the old system.
The key is finding that balance to get as many thinking styles as possible to a place of learning.
Jim: Hey dude, you know what a “rundown” is?
Oscar: Use it in a sentence.
Jim: “Uh, can you get this rundown for me?” [impersonating Charles]
Oscar: Try another sentence.
Jim: “This rundown better be really good”?
Oscar: I don’t know but it sounds like the rundown is really important.
Jim: Charles asked me to do this rundown of all my clients.
Oscar: Why don’t you just ask him–
Jim: No. I can’t. It was like, hours ago.
Oscar: What have you been doing?
Kevin: Try it in another sentence.
I like the individual approach the Pirates are implementing. From what I’ve gathered and seen, the Pirates are removing a key stigma that prevents learning — asking questions without the fear of appearing wrong.
Every player knows where to go if he has a question about something, and the Pirates are building a larger development system to ensure that those questions can be answered with a variety of solutions to help the player.
This all sounds good on paper, but the Pirates need to show they can ultimately produce better results from their farm system than they have in the past.
There have been some early concerning signs.
Strikeouts are way up across the system for hitters. Walks are way up for pitchers. There are a lot of blatant three-true-outcome players, including the big guy in the majors in this amazing photo taken by David Hague.
I think we can excuse guys in the majors for not having it all figured out right away.
The more concerning issue comes in the minors with Nick Gonzales. Drafted seventh overall in 2020 for his pure hitting skills, Gonzales has simply not hit. His strikeouts in Double-A are high, and his average is low.
Gonzales was starting to improve before going down with an injury. That small sample of hope stacks up against more than a season of Gonzales not living up to his draft hype.
Is this a problem with the player selection?
Is it a problem with the development?
Or, is Gonzales currently in an important development process where failing hasn’t mattered to this point?
It’s not good when your first draft choice is faced with these types of questions, and you’re stuck with wishful thinking on a small sample size. We’ve also heard and seen less than favorable reports on the defense behind the plate from 2021 first overall pick Henry Davis. It’s still early for both players, but this isn’t the first impression you want to see from Cherington’s first picks.
There are other situations that draw concern as to whether the Pirates have fixed their overall ability to drive players to success in Pittsburgh.
The Clay Holmes trade looks very lopsided right now.
The Pirates traded Holmes to the Yankees last year, getting Diego Castillo and Hoy Park in return. Castillo has shown power, with that three-true-outcomes trend. Park benefits mostly from versatility in the field. It’s difficult to envision either player as a starter on a contender. The Pirates are currently hoping one or both emerges as a contending bench option.
Meanwhile, Holmes has taken a big step forward with the Yankees as a key reliever on the best team in baseball — repeating a common theme we’ve seen with pitchers leaving Pittsburgh, barely changing, and having success.
It could be that most of the players in the old system were irreparably damaged — to the point where they never would have been able to have success for the Pirates.
If that is the case, it doesn’t bode well for a rebuild that currently is relying on — and still waiting on consistently better results from — Ke’Bryan Hayes and Mitch Keller.
The situation with Holmes raises concern that the Pirates haven’t fixed their issue. It also could be that they just can’t possibly undo the damage done to the psyche of some players.
The hope would be that the Pirates aren’t developing more players into the same psyche. That’s where I’m optimistic about Baker’s farm system developments.
Though, the lack of obvious results from the system, plus the early trends with hitter strikeouts, pitcher walks, and the first round picks — it all adds to the concern for an organization that hasn’t yet trained it’s fans to not expect the worst.
“Who would have thought, that the thing that would save this company would be work? And pancakes? In the end, this day definitely had its ups and downs. I realize that we don’t have the biggest office. Which is a surprise, because 165 square feet sounds like a lot. But, we have people with the biggest hearts. And I think for a small company that is really… [Flushing]
“Someone went to the bathroom.
“…That is really what’s important.”
In the end, it’s always obvious what needs to be done.
If the scouting department can find enough talent…
If John Baker’s system can better develop that talent…
If Ben Cherington can supplement all of that talent…
In the end, it will come down to the boss…
I have no doubt that Ben Cherington is going to lead the Pirates to the playoffs.
I have some very healthy doubt that Bob Nutting won’t do what it takes to keep the Pirates there.
My prediction is that, at some point in the future, Ben Cherington will put the Pirates back in the playoffs.
Maybe. We might all look back and realize that those cracks above were early warning signs that we’re downplaying while hyping up a traditional start to a rebuild. That’s the current area of the unknown where we reside.
I think they will make the playoffs.
What needs to happen with that is an effort to keep the Pirates in contention for longer than three seasons.
The last time around, Nutting had a very tight budget, which restricted the window of contention. I believe it also created an overall negative effect on the system, which led to their downfall.
The biggest lesson from the “Michael Scott Paper Company” arc in The Office is the lesson of how businesses overcome the problem of Volume.
I believe that’s what did in the Pirates under Huntington.
When the Pirates started contending, a lot of small things started to change. Their future spending on draft and international markets went down — mostly due to MLB rules and a lower standing. They also changed the type of player they targeted, going for “safer” college options like Kevin Newman and Will Craig.
Eventually, the farm system dried up because they went a few years where they stopped bringing in as much high-upside talent.
They started losing key members of their advanced scouting department and front office — people who had direct impacts on the winning. They obviously didn’t have replacements waiting, and couldn’t afford to keep those essential executives in place while fielding a team.
Neal Huntington got a small organization to the playoffs.
Not a small market organization.
A small organization.
I think that’s the biggest challenge that Bob Nutting has ever been up against. The Pirates were behind a lot of other franchises when Huntington took over. They didn’t even have a Dominican facility.
The Pirates have a bigger organization now, and what I’ve seen from Cherington is that he’s quietly growing that organization as an important part of this rebuild. It’s almost like building a base before you build the tower that will stand upon it. Neal Huntington didn’t have a strong base, and the tower crumbled quickly.
Volume is difficult to see beforehand, but easy to recognize afterwards.
When I switched to a subscription site in 2015, we got 5,000 subscribers in the first year. That’s awesome, but I’m one person and that’s a lot of people.
Let’s say that 10% of those people need 10 minutes of my time for account issues each year. This is a very fair estimate. That’s 83 hours. That’s two full weeks of work, plus a half-day Saturday, now dedicated to a role that didn’t previously exist. That has to come from somewhere.
In hindsight, what I needed was either the foresight to have someone waiting for such a problem, or the quick recognition and the funds to add someone to address that issue.
The problem is that it doesn’t make financial sense to hire someone for a year to do two-weeks worth of work that randomly comes up during that year. My business was big enough to need a customer service person, but not big enough to afford a customer service person. My choice was to lose money in the short-term by adding the position before it was needed, or creating a bigger issue in the long-term with those two-plus weeks coming from somewhere else I need to work on the site.
I chose to try and do it all and burnt out in spectacular fashion.
The truth of the matter is that my student loans, and the fact that my family didn’t own newspapers since the late 1800s, really put me in a disadvantage that I don’t think Bob Nutting has ever known in his life. My only choice was to wait for and deal with the problem. He can choose to go a different route.
There will come a point when Bob Nutting needs to expand his company to deal with an unforeseen volume issue.
The last time that happened, he was not effective.
I think the incredibly low payrolls this time around are a sign that the Pirates are saving for bigger budgets when they are contending, which will help them contend longer and avoid volume issues.
At the end of this, I think it will all come down to “How long can Bob Nutting keep his company contending?”
Because in the end, he’s running a small paper company, going up against Staples, Office Max, and Dunder Mifflin.
And unlike Michael Scott, Bob Nutting has made it clear he’s not entertaining any plans to sell.
THIS WEEKEND ON PIRATES PROSPECTS
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.