Sunday Notes: Ben Cherington Aspires to Build the Bucs (Still Cherishes Cistulli)

Ben Cherington stepped into a conflicted situation when he took over the GM reins in Pittsburgh last month. On the heels of a 93-loss season, an understandably-frustrated Pirates fan base wants to see a competitive team on the field in 2020. At the same time, a complete rebuild is arguably the more prudent course of action. Given the current roster and farm system, paired with ownership’s notoriously-tight purse strings… let’s just say that while Cherington is smart, he doesn’t possess magical powers. Patchwork moves alone aren’t going to turn this team around.

Nevertheless, that might be the plan. The former Red Sox and Blue Jays executive wasn’t willing to embrace the rebuild idea when I suggested it earlier this week during the Winter Meetings.

“There can be reasonable opinions from reasonable people, smart people, about the right direction, the right way to build,” said Cherington. “I can tell you that within our room, within baseball operations, we’re not thinking about it that way. We’re thinking about it more as ‘needing to get to a winning team.’ There’s no one path toward that.”

Cherington opined that there is untapped potential on the roster, and added that he’ll explore ways to add more talent. But what exactly does that mean? While he intimated that moves will be made, these are Bob Nutting’s Pittsburgh Pirates he’s working for now. I’d venture to guess that Scott Boras doesn’t have PNC Park phone numbers on speed dial.

As for the types of affordable acquisitions we’re likely to see, catching is currently a position of need. That came up when Cherington was asked if the club could benefit from more veteran leadership. Noting that the available free-agent catchers are mostly older and more experienced, he suggested that one of them could fill that bill. Regardless of who it might be, being more than a banjo hitter is one of the requirements.

“The role should be legitimate,” proclaimed Cherington. “There has to be an add from a baseball standpoint, too. You’re not going to get a guy who hits .150 just because he’s funny.”

Which leads us to — drum roll, please — a question about Cherington’s team for each of the past three seasons: Whose fault is it that the Blue Jays hired former FansGrapher Carson Cistulli?

“Whomever did should take credit,” answered Cherington. “He’s terrific. I miss being around him, because he’s so funny. He’s got a great sense of humor.”

Fair enough. But is Cistulli batting better than .150?

“That’s hard to measure,” Cherington told me. “But he is producing.”

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Rob Manfred was asked about the proposed contraction of 42 minor league baseball teams. His response began with a clarification: “This has been portrayed as a decision that has been made,” the commissioner said. “[But] it is by no means a fait accompli as to what the agreement is going to look like.”

His tone hardened when subsequently asked to characterize the tenor of the negotiations.

“I would characterize it as a tale of two cities,” said Manfred. “Between the negotiating committees, the dialogue has gotten a little more positive in the most recent set of meetings. In contrast, I think some of the activities that have been undertaken by the leadership of Minor League Baseball have been polarizing in terms of the relationship with the owners. I think they’ve done damage to the relationship with Major League Baseball, and I’m hopeful that we will be able to work through that damage in the negotiating room and reach a new agreement. When people publicly attack a long-time partner after they’ve committed to confidentiality in the negotiating process, usually people don’t feel so good about that.”

What to make of Manfred’s words? Frankly, they fanned the flames more than anything. His use of the term “attack” especially stood out. As a fellow writer put it, “Wouldn’t threatening to contract 40-plus teams qualify as an attack? A far-more-damaging attack?” Another scribe I spoke to questioned whether Manfred can be trusted in this matter.

Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, one thing is clear: The best interests of MLB owners, and the best interests of baseball as a whole, aren’t the same thing. (A high-ranking executive I spoke to off the record believes that to be true.) In my unbiased opinion, the commissioner standing too firmly behind the former is concerning. Moreover, Manfred’s rhetoric in San Diego lends credence to any such concern.

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The Detroit Tigers took Rony Garcia with the first pick of Thursday’s Rule-5 draft. More projection than results at this point of his young career, the 21-year-old right-hander logged a 4.01 ERA this year between high-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton. He was originally signed by the Yankees out of the Dominican Republic, in 2015.

Following the selection, Tigers VP of Player Development Dave Littlefield fielded questions from a small group of reporters. He described Garcia as “a good-sized kid with a good arm, a four-pitch pitcher… not overpowering staff, but good command and good pitchability.” (Eric Longenhagen wrote him up here.)

I asked if the decision to take Garcia was influenced more by scouting or analytics.

“It’s always a blend,” Littlefield replied. “Al Avila, our general manager, speaks of that often. That’s really how we make a lot of decisions in that regard.”

I followed up by asking if any tweaks to Garcia’s pitching package are planned.

“We certainly looked at the repertoire, the usage patterns, and those sorts of things,” said Littlefield. “I think it would be a little bold to start making any decisions at this point. Obviously we’d like to get our hands on him and have the pitching people work with him. But we’ll be doing a lot of work leading into spring training, breaking down the breakdown of his pitches, to get a stronger feeling.”

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Guy Sturdy went 2 for 2 against Willie Vern Underhill.

Finners Quinlan went 3 for 5 against Pug Cavet.

Marlon Byrd went 4 for 5 against Woody Williams.

Darwin Barney went 5 for 8 against Justin Verlander.

Adam LaRoche went 6 for 7 against Zack Greinke.

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Mike Moustakas has started 999 big-league games, and of them, only 40 have been as a second baseman. Cincinnati having signed him with plans to play there, I asked Reds manager David Bell if defense at that position has become less important in recent years — this because fewer balls are being hit on the ground.

“It very well could be the case,” replied Bell. “But it’s hard for me to say that any position on the field is less important. I mean, defense is still important, no matter how you cut it. We wouldn’t have signed Moose if we didn’t believe that he was going to be a solid second baseman. I’ve seen him play enough. I’ve seen the way his feet were, having experience at both positions. I have no doubt that he’s going to be solid there.”

Barring an injury to Eugenio Suarez, Moustakas won’t get to see much time at his more-familiar position of third base. The fact that he could easily slide over if the need arises is a comfort to his new manager.

“The way you look at our team, the obvious spot where he fits in right away is at second base, but things happen,” said Bell. “And he’s going to be with us at least four years. Having the ability to play first base, play some third base… I really wouldn’t hesitate to put him at short every now and then. He has that kind of feel, and that kind of presence and awareness on the field. Not that he’s going to play there a lot.”

It’s fair to say that the Reds would prefer to not see Moustakas at shortstop. Trusting him to play a consistently reliable second base is enough of a calculated gamble.

———

Triston McKenzie came into 2019 ranked second on our Indians Top Prospects list. Unfortunately, injuries kept him on the shelf for the entire season. Per Chris Antonetti, the 22-year-old right-hander initially suffered an upper-back strain, and then, just as he was starting to get healthy and ramp up his throwing, he developed a right pectoral muscle strain.

Barring any unexpected relapses, those issues are now in the rearview. Cleveland’s President of Baseball Operations told me on Wednesday that he expects McKenzie to go into the 2020 season fully healthy. Antonetti added that the club will monitor the string-bean hurler as they build him back up in spring training.

Bulking him up has proven be a challenge. McKenzie is listed at 6-5, 165 pounds, and while he’s maybe a hair heavier than that, there’s little chance he’ll ever be confused with Bartolo Colon.

“We feel good about his physical status,” said Antonetti. “We have a plan to continue developing that. He’s obviously super skinny. It is an individualized plan for him, because his body type is so different from other guys, but I don’t think there’s anything beyond an individualized plan.”

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NEWS ITEMS

The San Diego Padres have promoted Dave Cameron. The former FanGraphs writer and editor now holds the title Special Assistant to the GM, Baseball Research & Development.

The Atlanta Braves have hired Ben Sestanovich as an assistant general manager. Sestanovich spent last season as the Assistant Director of Player Development for the San Diego Padres.

The Texas Rangers have hired hired Bobby Wilson to manage their Double-A affiliate. A defensive-first catcher from 2008 through this past season, the 36-year-old Wilson saw big-league time with the Angels, Diamondbacks, Rangers, Rays, Tigers, and Twins.

The San Francisco Giants have hired Craig Albernaz as their new bullpen coach. A minor league catcher in the Tampa Bay organization from 206-2013, Albernaz was the Rays’ minor league field coordinator this past season.

The Boston Red Sox have hired Dante Ricciardi as a pro scout. The Bryant University alum is the son of San Francisco Giants front office executive JP Ricciardi (per The Boston Globe’s Alex Speier).

John Barr (Giants), Johnny DiPuglia (Nationals), Gary Nickels (Dodgers), and Bill ScHmidt (Rockies) shared Scout of the Year honors on Wednesday. The award, which requires 25 years of experience, has been given out annually since 1984.

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Scott Servais is a former farm director. With that in mind, I asked the Mariners manager how much of a role he plays in Seattle’s player development efforts. Servais shook his head side to side.

“I’m very in tune with what we’re doing, but our player development people, headed by Andy McKay, and our coaches and coordinators, have done a phenomenal job,” said Servais. “My background is in player development, but the game has changed so much over the last three or four years, especially with the tech and the data that is used. The tech is the main thing. The equipment out there to give feedback to players has become a huge tool in coaching.”

Servais added that while he trusts the development staff to handle the programs in place, he has learned a lot about them.

——

During last month’s GM Meetings, I asked Boston’s Chaim Bloom for his thoughts on windows. In baseball parlance, that means windows of opportunity, which tend to open and close at rates relative to a team’s ability — ditto its willingness —to spend. Since being hired in October, Bloom has spoken openly about ownership’s desire to cut payroll and get below the luxury tax threshold.

“We want to be perennially competitive,” said the former Tampa Bay Senior VP of Baseball Operations. “Sometimes different organizations might get to points where they need to think that way, but it’s not really our preferred mode of thinking.”

Boston’s Chief Baseball Officer was then asked how the small-market Rays viewed windows.

“I don’t want to dwell too much on how we thought there — it’s not my place anymore — but certainly, some years we felt we were in a better position to compete than others,” responded Bloom. “But we always tried to compete.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At The Los Angeles Times, Bill Shaikin wrote about MLB’s threat to walk away from Minor League Baseball.

Blake Harris feels that the Dodgers need to trade for Francisco Lindor. He shared his reasons at True Blue LA.

Over at Our Game, John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, told the strange story of the sacrifice fly.

The grave of Negro League player Saul Davis got a new marker in a North Dakota cemetery. Kim Fundingsland has the story at the Minot Daily News.

Holiday shopping in mind, Baltimore Baseball’s Rich Dubroff weighed in on the best baseball books of 2019.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Per Statcast, Luis Castillo threw 998 changeups this past season, the most in the majors. Masahiro Tanaka threw 742 splitters, the most in the majors.

Opponents were successful in 49 of 92 stolen base attempts against Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto. Opponents were successful in 45 of 50 stolen base attempts against Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki.

Through his age-24 season, Harold Baines had played 540 games and hit 96 doubles and 68 home runs. Through his age-24 season, Nomar Mazara has played 537 games and hit 95 doubles and 79 home runs.

On this date in 1980, Dave Winfield signed a 10-year, $23M contract with the New York Yankees. It was the richest contract in sports history at the time.

On this date in 2008, the Phillies signed Jamie Moyer to a two-year, $13M contract. Moyer, who was 46 years old at the time, was six months short of his 50th birthday when he made his final MLB appearance in 2012.

Tommy John logged his first MLB win at age 20. He had 48 wins after turning 40.

Former Yankees slugger Moose Skowron made 1,403 of his 1,410 starts at first base. He started at third base six times, and second base once.

Red Ruffing had a won-lost record of 39-96 when he was traded from the Red Sox to the Yankees in 1930. He finished with a career record of 273-225 and is in the Hall of Fame.

Red Cox pitched for the Detroit Tigers in 1920. His given name was Plateau Preston Rex Cox. Also pitching for the Tigers that year was Louis Edward Vedder. It does not appear as though he was known as Eddie.

Legendary newscaster Dan Rather did play-by-play for the Triple-A Houston Buffaloes in 1959.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Ben Cherington Aspires to Build the Bucs (Still Cherishes Cistulli) by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Nomar Mazara for the HOF in 2055.