Pittsburgh Pirates: Ben Cherington’s NL Central Rank

Call to the Pen recently ranked Ben Cherington as the worst general manager in the National League Central, but didn’t take into account many different factors in their rankings.

Call to the Pen started their 2021 general manager rankings last Sunday. They first started with the National League Central. The blog ranked Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Ben Cherington last among the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers, and Chicago Cubs’ managers. But there were many flaws in their analysis. CTTP doesn’t give Cherington enough credit for what he has done so far.

To be clear, they took what they had from the end of October 2020, so anything going into the 2020-2021 off-season was taken into account. According to the author, he also took into account, “the trades, purchases, and waiver claims he makes, by his free-agent signings or extensions, by his farm system call-ups, by the players he trades away, and by the players he releases or loses to free agency.”

What They Got Right

I will give them credit for the stuff they did right. Cherington did not do much to improve the major league roster, which is something they point out. Outside of 3-5 players, most of the 26-man roster were low-to-mid-tier players. Their biggest free-agent acquisition was Tyler Anderson. While Anderson proved to be a solid and durable arm that provided a handful of innings in each of his outings, he was pretty much league average and nothing to write home about.

The Pittsburgh Pirates had Anthony Alford and Gregory Polanco in the starting outfield, as well as Kevin Newman as one of the starting infielders. When Ke’Bryan Hayes went on the IL and missed a decent chunk of time, the replacement was Phillip Evans. Not the best roster depth to say the least.

What They Got Wrong

The measure Call to the Pen used to rank general managers were wins above average or WAA. WAA essentially tells how much better a player’s Baseball Reference’s WAR measure was to the league average. While this is a good way of comparing players as individuals, using it as a collective team isn’t the best use of it. For example, Cole Tucker contributed -1.0 WAA despite only having 131 plate appearances. Michael Perez had a -1.6 WAA despite serving a bench role. Rodolfo Castro had a WAA of nearly -1.0 after less than 100 plate appearances. Luis Oviedo accounted for -1.6 WAA even though he only pitched 29.2 innings.

The author does state that they do give context to the team’s situation, even stating the following:
“Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer conducted a mid-season tear-down of his roster that was virtually guaranteed to produce a negative rating for Hoyer by season’s end.

Hoyer would probably be OK with that; the moves were designed for future, not present impact.”

However it doesn’t seem Cherington was given the same treatment, or at least they took into account the major league roster too much for a team like the Pittsburgh Pirates. Finishing with 101 losses should then be positive on the Pirate end. They went into the season rebuilding, so acquiring the 4th overall pick should have been a positive for Cherington.

The statement that “collectively, his trades were a disaster” is flat-out an untrue statement. This statement was based on their performance in the majors so far and immediate contributions rather than the value they got back. Sure, it’s a disaster if you solely look at major league contributions. But that’s like saying drafting any high school player is a mistake because they’re still years away from being ready, regardless of talent.

The Jameson Taillon trade has the potential to be an absolute heist by Cherington. Roansy Contreras and Miguel Yajure could be long-term rotation arms. Canaan Smith-Njigba looks like a very solid LF/DH option for next season. Plus he has a ton of power potential. Maikol Escotto, the fourth player the Pirates got back, also has a ton of power potential. He’s only 19 and, per FanGraphs, is the equivalent of a second-round high school pick. And how did Taillon do? He was a league-average starter who had a lower fWAR and almost identical bottom-line numbers compared to the aforementioned Tyler Anderson

The Joe Musgrove trade looks like a win-win swap. The Pittsburgh Pirates got back their long-term closer in David Bednar, but they fail to mention how well Endy Rodriguez did at Low-A. He ended up winning his league’s MVP after having a wRC+ 140 and wOBA well above .400 at .410. Hudson Head is still considered a high-ceiling, highly athletic outfielder with five-tool potential, and Omar Cruz could contribute to the major league roster in 2022.

The Adam Frazier trade has been overblown by fans since the swap. Frazier was showing signs of luck and regression weeks before the trade. While I’ll be the first to admit that they possibly could have gotten more for Frazier had they forgone the other pieces of the deal, Tucupita Marcano is still a solid prospect, one who got rave reviews by professionals for his outstanding hand-eye coordination and ability to consistently avoid strikeouts and draw walks. Plus he completely skipped High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, jumping directly into major league action. Slugging outfielder Jack Suwinski could be another player who appears in the majors in 2022.

The other smaller trades involving Richard Rodriguez, Tyler Anderson, Austin Davis, and Clay Holmes also look like solid moves. The only move that doesn’t look very good right now is the Josh Bell trade. Even then, Bell only produced a 1.4 fWAR, still has a career sub-5 fWAR, and the jury is still very far out on Eddy Yean.

Looking solely at just the contributions of the major league team for a club, especially one in a rebuild, shorts any GM of the other moves he’s made. Aside from building up the farm by acquiring multiple worthwhile prospects through trades, he’s done it through the draft as well. It feels wrong to short any GM by not giving them credit for their draft, especially when you look at what Cherington did in the 2021 draft. The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted a quartet of consensus top 50 picks in the first four rounds of the draft. That being top slugger Henry Davis, top left-handed pitcher Anthony Solometo, highly touted two-way high school star Bubba Chandler, and another very high ceiling outfielder in Lonnie White Jr. Plus they were able to select Braylon Bishop in the 14th round, yet another highly touted high school outfielder who was projected to go in the first 100 picks but fell because of commitment concerns.

One last thing that isn’t taken into account is the development of minor league players. Many of the Pirates’ top prospects took big steps forward this year. Nick Gonzales, Quinn Priester, Roansy Contreras, Oneil Cruz, Matthew Fraizer, Liover Peguero, Endy Rodriguez, all improved in 2021.

Final Thoughts

If this were just grading based purely on how the major league team performed, I 100% agree, Cherington did the worst out of all the NL Central GMs to put together a quality major league roster. But based on the statement that “[Jed] Hoyer [the Cubs GM] would probably be OK with that; the moves were designed for future, not present impact”, there was some consideration to the team’s current situation and what the GM did to improve to further build upon.

Going into the 2020-2021 offseason the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cherington knew they were going to be a rebuilding ball club. He acquired some very talented prospects for his veteran players through trades while also further adding young, quality players through the draft, and international signings.