Cherington is giving the Pirates direction, and hope

By Joe Smeltzer

If Ben Cherington didn’t walk into baseball hell, he walked into the next worst thing.

Two Novembers ago, the Pirates were a slop fest.

They still are, in a way, but that’s just on the field. In 2019 there was slop here, there and everywhere.

On the field, the team lost 93 games. In the locker room, relievers Kyle Crick and Felipe Vazquez came to blows. Away from the ballpark entirely, the aforementioned Vazquez got himself arrested and presumably thrown out of baseball for charges that I’d rather not discuss on this page.

Things were bad in the front office, too. The powers that be showed us that even wise decisions could be butchered if not done in a timely or appropriate manner.

The Pirates were right to fire manager Clint Hurdle.

They were wrong to do it hours before the last game of the season.

They were right to fire Cherington’s predecessor, general manager Neal Huntington.

They were wrong to wait a month to do so, and two weeks longer to hire his replacement, thus putting Cherington further behind than he should have been.

Regardless of how they went hiring GMBC, we knew right away that he was qualified. Cherington’s biggest claim to fame is— and, unless our dreams come true, probably always will be— winning a World Series ring with the Red Sox in 2013, and he didn’t get that ring by jumping on a gravy train.  Sure, the Red Sox are a big market team that had won two championships in the previous decade, but he turned a dysfunctional, Bobby Valentine-induced mess into a champion, and for that, earned every bit of his praise.

Now, in the 14 months that Cherington has been trying to fix the Pirates, he’s done a significant amount of things to convince me that he’s the right guy to do it— the return for Joe Musgrove this week being the most recent one— and few things to convince me that he isn’t.

The on-field product isn’t any better. In fact, this year’s edition might have been one of the worst Bucco teams of all time. For the next two years, at least, the team is still going to be lousy.  

Cherington knows this, and that’s a big reason why I like him.

His first big move was hiring Derek Shelton to replace Hurdle, not long after his own hiring. I can’t praise him or rip him apart for that yet, and won’t be able to until Shelton has a competent roster to work with.

What gets me excited is that I think Cherington will one day give Shelton a competent roster to work with.

GMBC’s second big move was trading what would have been his best player in 2020, Starling Marte, to Arizona for teenage prospects Liover Peguero and Brennan Malone. The key word there is teenage. Cherington’s first of three major trades established a trend of accumulating minor leaguers that are talented, but years away from the majors, and further away from stardom.  

It’s a dangerous game, but one that Cherington has to play, and that Huntington wouldn’t play.

In Neal Huntington’s world, trading a star player meant acquiring the Colin Moran’s of the world, fringe prospects who were unproven, yet experienced enough to be on the major league roster right away.

 That line of thinking helped get him fired.

When Cherington acquired Peguero and Malone— who, according to MLB.com, are the Pirates fifth and ninth best prospects, respectively—  it was a sign that the team finally had a GM with a plan.

In July, Cherington had his first draft with the Pirates, and although we won’t know how he made out for a few years, the class, headlined by Nick Gonzalez, earned an A ranking from CBS sports.com, and Gonzalez is already the Pirates No.1 prospect according to MLB.com. So early impressions are promising.

Cherington was pretty quiet during the season, not making any major acquisitions while the team played 60 games and won 19 of them. Then, on Christmas Eve, GMBC turned Josh Bell, a one-year wonder who never learned how to play first base, into Eddy Yen, a promising young arm who comes in as the team’s No. 8 prospect. Then, on MLK Day, he moved Musgrove, a guy who looks like he’s finally a top-end major league starter but, nonetheless, has never been anything better than OK for an entire 162-game season, and got a bundle of prospects headlined by Hudson Head, who debuts at No. 6.

So to break it down, Cherington turned an established, but aging outfielder, a mediocre first baseman and a relatively unproven starting pitcher into four of the Pirates top 10 prospects, and two of their top five. Not too bad.

Hey, I get it. The Pirates haven’t won a playoff series since the Carter administration, and aside from three good years in the 90s and three more good years in the 2010s, the team has been consistently disappointing since Reagan took office. I can relate to the most pessimistic fan in Pittsburgh, and can even understand why one-time diehards went cold turkey.

But me? I trust GMBC. I believe the Pirates will be winners again before he leaves town. If that makes me a sap or an idiot, that’s ok. Right now, the GM is making the right moves, and in sports, that’s how winning teams are born.

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