Column | The Pirates should follow the Guardians’ blueprint, build from within


AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Pittsburgh Pirates’ Oneil Cruz hits a solo home run during a game against the Washington Nationals in June at Nationals Park in Washington.

By Frankie Richetti, Senior Staff Writer

The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t made the MLB Playoffs since 2015.

While being a small market club puts them at a competitive disadvantage, the Pirates have nobody to blame but themselves for being non-competitive year in and year out.

Small market teams can be successful, but the margin for error is small. This explains why the Pirates are one of the worst teams every year — they’ve set themselves back because of poor drafting and trades. On the opposite side of the spectrum, a team like the Cleveland Guardians excels at adding talent through those same methods. 

It’s no secret why Cleveland is currently playing in the ALDS this season — and the Pirates should take some pages out of their book. 

The Guardians are a factory, consistently churning out young talent. Cleveland’s former core that led them to three straight postseason appearances from 2016 to 2018 consisted of names like Francisco Lindor, Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger. 

All of those players are gone.

What separates the Guardians from teams like the Pirates is that they capitalize on trades despite trading away proven commodities at a high rate.

The Guardians traded away Kluber — a two-time AL Cy Young award winner — for Emmanuel Clase, who is now one of the best relievers in the sport. Lindor and Clevinger netted Cleveland a combination of Amed Rosario, Andres Gimenez, Josh Naylor and Cal Quantrill, who have all played instrumental to this year’s success. 

The Guardians have done a great job developing homegrown talent as well. Cleveland has developed players such as Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie and Steven Kwan, who are cornerstones of the franchise. 

It’s important to note that the Guardians — the youngest team in baseball — won their division with a payroll of just $82 million

The Pirates, who sit toward the bottom of the league in payroll, don’t have an excuse. If you aren’t going to spend in free agency, you need to identify and develop young talent. 

Over half of the Guardians’ postseason roster is homegrown. Just two players on the roster were added via free agency. If there was ever a realistic blueprint for the Pirates to follow, it’s this one. Some fans have pointed to teams like the Brewers in the past, but let’s face it, the Pirates aren’t going to make the splashes in free agency that Milwaukee has in previous seasons. 

Pirates general manager Ben Cherington is entering the fourth year of his tenure. If his team doesn’t show signs of improvement at the Major League level next season, it’s hard for fans to continue trusting his plan.

Instead of building around proven players like Josh Bell, Joe Musgrove, Starling Marte and Jameson Taillon, who were on the roster upon his arrival, Cherington decided to trade them away and replenish the Pirates’ minor league system. 

Sure, the previous regime’s Chris Archer trade set the franchise back a few years. But the Pirates could have built around those guys. As we’ve come to find out, those are some really talented players — who all played a key role in their respective teams making the playoffs this season.

The Taillon trade looks promising, with the Pirates receiving Roansy Contreras, who posted a 3.79 ERA in 18 starts for Pittsburgh in 2022. The Pirates also landed all-star reliever David Bednar for Musgrove, but other than that, there isn’t much to show for any of those trades at the big league level. 

At the moment, it looks like most of those trades are losses. That doesn’t mean they will all stay that way. Whenever the Guardians made some of their trades, fans didn’t think they would pan out.

Pittsburgh landed a few promising prospects in those trades, most notably Endy Rodriguez and Liover Peguero, who are both top 100 prospects. 

Henry Davis and Nick Gonzales — Pittsburgh’s 2020 and 2021 first round draft picks — are waiting in the wings as well. One of Pittsburgh’s biggest setbacks under former general manager Neal Huntington was poor drafting. Cherington needs to right that ship. He needs Davis and Gonzales to pan out. 

The talent is there, but the fate of the Pirates’ rebuild comes down to development. 

At the moment, that’s what separates an organization like Cleveland from Pittsburgh.