For the Pittsburgh Pirates to begin the process of team building, they can’t just sit back and let the coaching do all the heavy lifting. This could be very daunting and following a simple formula will be key.
Here are my four E's for the Pirates this spring training: Engage, Evaluate, Enable, Elevate.
When players reach the warm spring sun in Bradenton, most are more than ready to play baseball. This season though, there is so much more to deal with. This was a clubhouse in turmoil last season, there was fighting, dissatisfaction with preferential treatment for some, poor performances and a disconnect with coaching.
Given all that, a new coaching staff is rarely met with 40 sets of open arms and Derek Shelton is well-equipped to handle the issue. He’s likable and has already been actively reaching out to his players. Two of his leaders in the clubhouse, Josh Bell and Joe Musgrove have already endorsed him and with Starling Marte and “He Who Shant Be Named” already gone, every player is on the same plane. Nobody is living on another planet financially. Each of them is either playing for their next team’s eye, or to convince Pittsburgh they are the one worth extending.
Engaging the fanbase is important too, but shocking the world and showing they are greater than the sum of their parts is the most realistic path to that.
Openly and honestly evaluate each player. Don’t predetermine the six or seven players in the mix for the starting rotation, leave that to the professional guessers out there like me. Start who performs best, its really the only benefit to having a payroll that could barely cover the Yankee’s electric bill. Nobody is special, yet. A great for instance is Trevor Williams, his stuff is average, he knows it, the hitters know it. His game is control, pinpoint control, so if he doesn’t have it he should have a very short leash. Williams has been a nice pitcher for the Bucs for a couple stretches, but that shouldn’t promise him a spot in the rotation.
I say this for a couple reasons, first, nobody should walk into any privilege after a season like that and second, the Pirates, despite not having a whole lot of top end starters, face quite a few questions there. There will only be five when the dust settles, they only need four most of the first month of the season out of a list that looks something like this; Joe Musgrove, Chris Archer, Mitch Keller, Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams, Steven Brault, Derek Holland, JT Brubaker, James Marvel, Chris Stratton and possibly more.
Don’t get hung up on the names, their history, their numbers, who has options yet, just be open to allowing each to earn their spot in the rotation, and, for the love of God, if a player has to stay on the roster because they are out of options but they clearly don’t belong, waive them.
The hitters too. Don’t just let Guillermo Heredia just walk in and grab a starting spot if he is outperformed by Jose Osuna, Kevin Kramer or Jason Martin.
Allow the players to build on what you have identified as areas of growth. If Josh Bell does nothing but take grounders all spring and is forced to learn which base to throw to, the hitting will come. If you’ve identified a way for Adam Frazier to avoid the slumps that have inexplicably taken his quick swing to task in his short career, I don’t need to see him hit 4 or 5 homers into the Bradenton wind. Give them the analytics many players said they were hungry for last season. Realize they will go get it themselves anyway and you lose the right to help them read from it what you do.
Put players in situations they can succeed. Nobody needs to see Kevin Kramer try to handle center. These things will happen with travel teams and split squads that come with Grapefruit League ball, but they shouldn’t be the norm.
Maximizing a young team comes down to this one principle almost more than any, you have to catch them on the upswing. Learning and improvement should continue all season long, but there must be a culture of continued growth baked in. Young guys need rewarded for hard work, even if it comes at the expense of veterans (and I use that term lightly).
None of this is going to turn this squad into a threat to win the NL Central in 2020, but this year is all about building a foundation so the next time they have a core they like, they don’t look down and realize they’re standing on sand. It seems like it’s aiming quite low, but I’ll settle for a team that looks and plays professionally. Make the right plays, make most of the plays you should. Don’t ground out with the bases loaded and one out. Don’t bunt into a wheel play. Simple things like that will go miles toward returning to respectability. I’ll settle for a team that doesn’t get its doors blown off once every three games.
You have to start somewhere and this spring is a blank canvas, paint the picture you want to see moving forward and build on it.
Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007