Assessing 2023 front offices: Ben Cherington's Pittsburgh Pirates went the wrong direction again

The 2023 season represented Ben Cherington’s fourth consecutive season of negative short-term impact for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
 Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Paul Skenes (left) is welcomed by GM Ben Cherington.
Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Paul Skenes (left) is welcomed by GM Ben Cherington. / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Ben Cherington front office WAA impact for Pittsburgh Pirates: -8.0 games. Rank in MLB: 28. Rank in division: 5.

In assessing the 2023 work of Ben Cherington’s front office in Pittsburgh, comparisons with the Cincinnati Reds are instructive.

Both are relatively low-revenue NL Central teams with a recent history of underachievement. Both also entered 2023 committed to relying on the internal development and promotion of rising stars.

For the record, that’s the optimal course for lower-revenue teams such as the Pirates (27th in payroll) or Reds (26th).

How’d that strategy work out? A lot better for the Reds, who we’ll get to later in this series, than for Cherington’s Pirates.

Pittsburgh’s system did in fact produce 13 new faces in 2023 to go with its crop of recent vintages, notably KeBryan Hayes, Oneil Cruz, Luis Pegeuro, and Mitch Keller. Cruz’s season-ending early season injury was the first blow to that framework, and things did not go well from that point.

Of the 13 true first-year products who saw major league time in 2023, only June callup Jared Trillo stood out. Triollo hit .298 in 209 plate appearances with competent support numbers. That gave him a +1.4 Wins Above Average (WAA) for the roughly one-third of a season he played.

WAA is used in this series of front office evaluations because it is a zero-based version of WAR, therefore enabling valid approximations of impact against wins and losses.

The presumed big star, outfielder Henry Davis, was among the vast majority of rookies who adapted poorly. Davis hit .213 for a -2.3 WAA. As a group, Pirate rookies presented a collective -7.1 WAA, worst of any first-year crop.

Back briefly to that comparison with the Reds. Spoiler alert: Cincinnati’s rookies ranked fourth in baseball at +2.7 WAA. That’s a 9.8-game difference between the two river cities. Want to know why thee Reds suddenly pulled six games to the good side of the Pirates in 2023? That’s why.

Since the conclusion of the 2022 postseason, Cherington and the Pirate leadership team made 53 personnel moves affecting a major league roster. Only 20 of those 53 moves worked to the benefit of the Pirates, while 29 produced a negative impact (four were neutral). The sum total of that short-term impact on Pirate 2023 fortunes works out to -8.0 games. In short, the Pirates would have been eight games better if Cherington and his staff had taken a six-month winter vacation.

Beyond the failure of the farm system, Cherington’s staff also had trouble taking advantage of opportunities to swing deals. The Pirates ranked 28th among the 30 teams in the cumulative impact of their trades, waiver claims, player purchases and sales.

The numbers are not dramatic (-3.7 games of net WAA), but they do involve 14 players, some of whom (Connor Joe, Ji Man Choi, Joshua Palacios) saw substantial playing time. Only the Angels and A’s were worse at team-to-team swaps.

Here’s the full short-term and long-term statistical profile on the Cherington 2023 performance. Again, all figures reflect group Wins Above Average.

Acquired by trade, waiver claim or purchase:

  • Since October 2022: 14players, -3.7 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022: 13 players, -0.2 net impact

Signed as a free agent or extended for multiple seasons:

  • Since October 2022, 11 players, -0.9 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 2 players, +1.3 net impact

System products:

  • Since October 2022, 13 players, -7.1 net impact.
  • Prior to October 2022, six players, -1.5 net impact

Traded away, waived, sold, released or lost to free agency:

  • Since October 2022, 16 players, +3.7 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 20 players, +4.2 net impact

I don’t mean to sound ominous, but in this instance there is reason for foreboding. This is Cherington’s fourth season as chief executive of Pirates baseball fortunes. As measured by WAA, here are the net impacts of his moves (both the short-term and long-term ones) across those four seasons:

                       Since prior October         Before prior October

2020                       -4.3                                        NA

2021                    -13.4                                      -10.0

2022                    -10.5                                       -9.2       

2023                     -8.0                                         +3.8

Granting that the long-term impact of Cherington’s moves finally turned positive in 2023, this is not the statistical profile of a front office on the right track. His predecessor, Neil Huntington, was fired after four consecutive seasons of negative short-term impact. The 2023 season represented Cherington’s fourth consecutive season of negative short-term impact.

He needs a productive 2024.