GM Ben Cherington has transformed Pirates into top-10 farm system but 'not satisfied at all'

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  • Ben Cherington
    Ben Cherington
    American baseball player
  • Jameson Taillon
    Jameson Taillon
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Starling Marte
    Starling Marte
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  • Josh Bell
    Josh Bell
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  • Joe Musgrove
    Joe Musgrove
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Nick Gonzales
    American baseball player

Mar. 27—Join the conversation

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Ben Cherington was adamant from his first day as general manager that his mission was to infuse the Pittsburgh Pirates with more talent, believing their minor leagues needed an overhaul.

Where his trades of proven veterans Starling Marte, Josh Bell, Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon were viewed as a total teardown, Cherington was intent on building the organization from the bottom up.

That vision was rewarded, to some degree, when MLB Pipeline ranked the Pirates the No. 8 farm system in baseball, flush with newcomers acquired by Cherington either through draft or trade. Of their top 30 prospects, Cherington traded for 10 and drafted five. Baseball America ranks the Pirates 13th, up from No. 23 a year ago.

"We're encouraged that some of the public rankings — and there's a handful of them — feel like it's improved," Cherington told the Tribune-Review. "That's encouraging. I would say that we're not satisfied at all. We know how important young players are to us with what we're trying to do. My hope is that we just want to keep adding to that. I wouldn't say that we're satisfied at all."

Instead of treating the skyrocketing rankings as a feather in his cap, Cherington looks at them as merely a step in the right direction. The Pirates' top prospect, third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes, will graduate and start the season in the majors. But they will replenish with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 MLB Draft, positioned to choose between Vanderbilt pitchers Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter or a high school prospect such as Dallas shortstop Jordan Lawlar.

Cherington knows his work is far from finished, that his acquisitions will mean next to nothing if they don't become stars in the majors. This is the beginning of his plan to build the Pirates into a club capable of sustaining success, knowing the key to winning is player development.

"You hit the nail on the head: Development is really critical," Cherington said. "I always felt like if you think about all the players in an organization on your major league team or in the minor leagues, if you can help a bunch of them improve, then in total, if you add that up, it almost always makes a bigger difference than any single addition you make. We've got to pour a lot of energy into development."

The first step was inviting more than a dozen prospects to spring training, where they worked with instructors at Pirate City and got to play against major league competition in Grapefruit League games.

As Pirates hitting coach Rick Eckstein watched top-five prospects such as Oneil Cruz, Nick Gonzales and Liover Peguero take swings in batting cages and games, he couldn't help but get excited about their "tremendous ability and talent" and daydream about their futures.

"You watch them go about their day, how they move, how they talk, they bring a lot of excitement to the field just with their presence," Eckstein said. "I like to sit back and watch and try to understand who each one can be some day. For me, it's really exciting because you see major league-quality talent."

Ranked No. 43 by MLB Pipeline and No. 51 by Baseball America, Gonzales represents Cherington's first draft pick and a future middle infielder. Peguero, acquired from Arizona in the Marte trade, might be the shortstop of the future, though he has competition in Cruz and Ji-Hwan Bae.

The Pirates also have been impressed with former first-round picks in right-hander Quinn Priester and center fielder Travis Swaggerty, as well as newly acquired pitchers Miguel Yajure and Roansy Contreras, part of the four-player return for trading Taillon to the New York Yankees.

Pirates manager Derek Shelton has focused on the importance of building relationships with players who most likely won't make the Opening Day roster but could join the major league club within the next year or so.

"Every time I see guys who are gonna be part of our future on the field in a major league game, it makes me smile," Shelton said. "I think the one thing we can see from the beginning of spring until now is that they're getting better."

The continued growth of the prospects is vital, which is why Cherington identified John Baker as the new director of coaching and player development. A former major league catcher who served as mental skills coach for the Chicago Cubs, Baker intends to blend old-school baseball skills with new-age analytics.

Cherington wanted to take the idea of mental performance and not limit it to a specific skill such as visualization or developing routines to an individual player but spread it throughout the organization.

"Part of our interest and attraction to John was to really think about our entire development program through the lens or eyes of what is this player feeling, thinking, what is this player's experience going through the day," Cherington said, "and how should that inform our development model or practice, not just in the mental skill area but everything: How we should set up our batting cage routines or pitcher's schedules, in terms of what their day looks like?"

Gonzales, for one, has found the weekly work on mental skills to be "huge," as players can compare notes to both their success and struggles. He believes it is building a bond between teammates.

"We mostly talk about things we do when things are going bad and things we do when things are going really good," Gonzales said. "Having everyone around and sharing their experiences is really good for opening up and creating a better team chemistry as well within the guys. We just learn more about each other and it helps us all."

During an in-game interview with AT&T SportsNet, Baker raved about how quickly Cherington has rebuilt the farm system and how excited he is. As Baker was watching a B game at Pirate City, he started asking what level of the minor leagues the prospects last played, only to find out that many of them hadn't played above Single-A or Double-A.

"I was looking around like, 'These guys look like major leaguers and the highest level they played is A ball,' " Baker said. "It's exciting to see that. We've got the kind of players to make my job pretty easy."

Where Cherington is quick to credit Pirates mental strength and peak performances coaches Bernie Holliday, Hector Morales, Tyson Holt and Andy Bass for their work before his arrival, the challenge for Baker is taking the mental skills education and integrating it into baseball language. That includes explaining analytics in layman's terms so players understand what the data is telling them. Pirates players have credited Shelton and his staff for helping with that transition at the major league level, so the club is doing it at the ground level with its prospects.

"Sometimes, the conversations about analytics can get confusing," Baker said. "They can definitely get confusing for a player when they're talking about how many times a ball is spinning while they're trying to hit it at the same time. As my mentor Bob Tewksbury used to say, 'We always have to account not just for the pitches spin rate but for the mental spin rate.' We'll be making sure we do that in our developmental system."

What Cherington wants is for the top prospects to be major league ready when they get called up. After all, the Pirates had the No. 1 farm system in 2014, according to Baseball America, only for Gregory Polanco, Bell, Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows to endure ups and downs. The Pirates haven't made the postseason since 2015 and followed a 93-loss season in 2019 with the worst record in baseball last year (19-41).

"One hundred percent, that's a critical piece of it, absolutely," Cherington said. "It's as simple as looking at teams that are in the playoffs consistently, no matter what the size of the payroll. Yes, they're doing a good job of picking players. But those teams did a really good job of helping players get better consistently also, so we've got to be good at both."

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at kgorman@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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