[THE PRODUCER: Alright, Tim, you know the deal. Today we’re using the Pirates Prospects Time and Space Deregulator to take a look at the events on Earth-8, Earth-15222, and as always, Earth-412. I’ll lay out the notes you need to know below. Replace them with your writing. As always, remember to DELETE MY COMMENTS BEFORE POSTING! Now go, do your thing, you big, beautiful idiot.]
What kind of impact can one year of veteran presence have on a young, rebuilding franchise?
The Pittsburgh Pirates just signed Carlos Santana to a one year, $6.7 million deal to be their first baseman in 2023. If I were to place a future’s bet, I would put my money on Santana being traded at the deadline, versus remaining with the team all season.
I’ll add the disclaimer that I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.
It’s not like I have access to a Time and Space Deregulator.
Regardless of whether Santana is traded after four months, or after six months, you have to question: What type of lasting impact can a veteran make in four-to-six months?
We’ve already seen the type of attitude that Santana can bring.
que lo queee 🤪 pic.twitter.com/sQ114L4IR1
— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) November 29, 2022
That lighthearted approach has been far more prevalent throughout the Pirates’ organization now than in the past. They had that vibe when they were contenders, and they lost it along the way. The old organization treated baseball like it was a Fortune 500 profession, while the new organization treats it like it’s a game — which it is. And it’s easier to have a relaxed vibe when you are gearing up for a game, rather than corporate America.
The thing is, it’s really difficult for a 21, 22, 23 year old player to enter the majors with no experience and to have that lighthearted approach. There’s the stress of sticking in the majors, combined with the stress of being judged for your every action — on and off the field.
I always respected Joey Porter on the Pittsburgh Steelers in the aughts. Porter was one of the better players on the team, but really stood out by being a lightning rod for discussions from media and fans. You didn’t focus on young Ben Roethlisberger as much, because you were partially focused on the latest feud between Porter and someone playing for the upcoming week’s playoff opponent.
Santana isn’t Porter in the sense that he would be antagonistic toward opponents. That’s just how Porter stood out, in a much more violent sport. Santana can be the lightning rod for discussions surrounding this team. Rather than constantly dissecting every single thing that Oneil Cruz does in his inconsistent early days, there will now be a lot of nights where we can all point to Carlos Santana and say “At least we get to watch Carlos Santana dance and hit home runs.”
And maybe that will help Cruz and all of the other younger players adjust by allowing them to operate with inconsistency outside of the spotlight.
But the impact for Santana won’t just be changing the culture in the clubhouse. I feel like there could be some direct, on-field advantages that will play out over time. These are all speculative, involving imagining alternate versions of reality.
For example, I would imagine Oneil Cruz is pitched a lot different in a reality where he’s the main power threat in the lineup — versus a lineup that protects him with Santana. I’d imagine the latter would be our reality in 2023.
I think the biggest impact might be on the field, where Santana is a solid defender with positive value in limiting errors. I’ve talked with players over the years who have described the impact of having an automatic target at first base. It removes just one split second thought from the process, which can make a world of a difference.
To illustrate the difference, let’s imagine two alternate realities — one without Santana and one with Santana — and how things might be different.
[THE PRODUCER: I hope you didn’t go really long with your intro. Most people in your society have undiagnosed ADHD. Future generations will recognize that as the real pandemic of your time. I know you want to be the hero who expands people’s mind with long-form analysis, but realize that you live in the TikTok generation where people live on three-second bursts of dopamine. Try, if you can, to keep this article to 350 words. No more than 500. This formula is how Pittsburgh Baseball Network took over the entire media landscape on Earth-412.
I’m sorry if I’m coming across as harsh. Earth-8 is a harsh place. It’s one of the early versions of Earth, and home to all of the “unwritten rules” in baseball that were destroyed from print during the 328th version of this planet. On Earth-8, in your time period, Tony LaRussa is the Commissioner of Baseball and the Pittsburgh Pirates are in perpetual rebuild mode. It’s so bad that they tried Miguel Andújar as the starting first baseman all year. All year. The sight of Andújar scooping grounders all season was enough to tear the fabric of the Multiverse. Pirates fans in other realities didn’t even realize why they envisioned Miguel Andújar as a first base option. The concept was mysteriously seared into their brains, with a subtle warning that only few Nexus individuals could detect.
We can’t send video through the Deregulator, so I’ll transcribe a play below between Oneil Cruz and Andújar, followed by some notes for your writing.]
The Play: A ball is hit slowly up the middle. Oneil Cruz breaks from traditional shortstop positioning to his left, with time to field the ball in the shallow outfield grass. He fields the ball cleanly, turns, double-clutches the ball for security, and fires a strike to Andújar at first, which is too late to catch the runner.
Imagine what goes through the head of an infielder when they know they have an unreliable first base target.
Every single play, there’s a split-second where they would have to adjust for that potential. Their approach to every play would be different. You can’t make some throws, because your first baseman can’t bail you out. It’s obvious when a bad first baseman makes an error. It’s less obvious when a bad first baseman is the indirect result of extra hits, because he doesn’t provide his teammates with the trust that any one of their mistakes is going to be bailed out on his end.
I’m not trying to knock Miguel Andújar here, because it’s not his fault he’s not a first baseman.
But, imagine the long-term impact on every infielder after spending an entire year learning to field with that unnecessary mind-hurdle to leap every time they make a throw to a non-first baseman. It’s not difficult to imagine the Pirates ending up with negative results throughout the season.
How much long-term negative results can they expect by training their fielders to adjust to a bad first baseman daily for an entire year? Experience is powerful, and if your experience is mostly playing with a bad first baseman, then you will learn some bad habits.
VERSUS AN ATTEMPT TO GO FOR IT
[THE PRODUCER: Earth-15222 is a fun one, in a Mad Max way. It’s lawless. That extends to the game of baseball. Historians in later generations were able to trace the shift back to a single moment. In year 17245 — which I believe translates to sometime in the early 21st century in your timeline map — the Pirates won a World Series with a 46-man roster. It all started one day when Ben Cherington just decided to not file a corresponding roster move and carry 41 players.
I’m not sure if you have experienced this type of moment yet in your reality. It was crazy. Everyone at once learned that the MLB roster rules can be broken with no repercussions. We lost Ethan Hullihen that day. I’ve never seen a human head physically explode. As the year went on, Cherington just kept adding extra roster spots. After awhile, Pirates fans stopped saying anything, realizing that they were narcing on their team to a league that only cared about shortening game times.
Anthony Murphy of this Earth was able to find a play that had an almost identical setup to the one on Earth-8. This one has Carlos Santana as the first baseman. He went on to win the World Series MVP award that season on Earth-15222, hitting a walk-off home run in the tenth as a pinch hitter, after exiting the game earlier. I want to make clear, the rules on re-entry to a game aren’t different in this universe. The Pirates of Earth-15222 just do what they want and make their own rules and no one can stop them. Almost like the Astros of your timeline, except far more shameless. But, it works in this lawless reality. It’s not a safe world to live in. If you ever see anything happening like this, let us know on Earth-412. We will get you out of that reality immediately. Anyway, the play is transcribed below.]
The Play: A ball is hit slowly up the middle. Oneil Cruz breaks from traditional shortstop positioning to his left, with time to field the ball in the shallow outfield grass. He fields the ball cleanly, turns, and launches a throw in the general direction of the first base bag. The throw is a bit wild — up and to the left, carried by the momentum from Cruz — but a stretch by Carlos Santana nabs it out of the air before the runner reaches the bag, completing the out.
Imagine the impact of Oneil Cruz and every other Pirates infielder being able to just mindlessly launch throws to first base.
Cruz wouldn’t have to scale down his game. Nor would Hayes. Nor would Rodolfo Castro. They could all play all-out ball, using range and angles to get to grounders, and having confidence that their first baseman will bail them out if their throw from their all-out play gets too wild.
Hayes is pretty controlled with his skills, so I don’t think it would make much of a difference who his first baseman is. Cruz and Castro are younger, and can get more uncontrolled with their play. As I wrote yesterday, I think an advantage of having Santana and Hayes bookending those two is that the infield will be a bit smaller.
Another advantage is that those players won’t have to spend as much time worrying about their own potential mistakes. Overall, things should be easier on the young middle infielders, allowing their talent to play through as much as possible, and with minimal damage from errors.
I wonder what kind of lasting impact that would have. Will Oneil Cruz improve long-term as a fielder after spending a year protected by Hayes’ range to his right and Santana’s glove at first? What positive habits will he develop while surrounded by that type of reliability over a four-to-six month span of daily MLB experience?
A RISING TIDE LIFTS ALL BOATS
[THE PRODUCER: As usual, let’s wrap this up with a comparison to Earth-412, or as you like to call it “Pirates Fan Utopia”. I know that the forty straight World Series titles by the Pirates in my universe seems like a Pirates fan’s OOTP fantasy come true. What I can tell you is that Carlos Santana in our reality was a big shift toward the utopian Pirates dynasty that you use as a guide when evaluating your own reality.
The easiest way to put it: Carlos Santana showed Pirates fans on Earth-412 that the Pirates cared about winning. The Pirates followed by making similar moves, geared toward winning, and they eventually won. And they kept winning as they kept adding more and more MLB players.
I don’t know if it will play out the same in your reality. The Deregulator can only look into so many realities per day, and we’ve got Winter Meeting and Rule 5 season coming up, so the machine is pretty taxed. I do know there are realities out there where Carlos Santana did not lead the Pirates to winning. Don’t present anything as a guarantee, but you can write with confidence that the Pirates are heading in the right direction with Santana.]
I think the Pirates are heading in the right direction with the addition of Carlos Santana.
Is this move going to lead to a winning season in 2023? Probably not, unless the league would have allowed the Pirates to also bend the standard roster rules all year.
Is this move going to single-handedly lead to younger players having successful big league futures? Definitely not.
Santana will raise the tide. He will improve the clubhouse atmosphere, so that the younger players can relax. He will provide stability in the middle of the lineup. He will provide stability on the field at first base.
That stability will allow some players the room to grow on their own — knowing that they don’t have to be the stable player on the roster. The idea that Ke’Bryan Hayes, Oneil Cruz, or any other young player would magically grow into a Santana-type player to lead this organization was always an idea that put an immense amount of pressure on those young players.
Santana didn’t come up with that pressure to do it all. He had Travis Hafner on his team in those young days, along with other veterans like Orlando Cabrera. Santana wasn’t expected to immediately be the player he is now, back then.
Likewise, the young, high-upside guys in Pittsburgh’s system right now won’t just turn into a Carlos Santana-level player. They will need examples of how to be that player, and they will also need lower-pressure situations to allow them to develop into that player. Santana can provide both.
This move won’t single-handedly change things for the Pirates. It is a huge step in the right direction, for many reasons.
The main positive: For the first time in Ben Cherington’s rebuild, the focus is shifting toward adding talent at the MLB level.
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.