Notes: Shelton on culture, competition

December 16th, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- Pirates manager Derek Shelton opened his “virtual Winter Meetings” press conference on Tuesday afternoon talking about his desire to create culture and competition in his second season on the job.

Revitalizing the clubhouse culture has been particularly important for the Pirates since they made sweeping leadership changes a year ago and brought in president Travis Williams, general manager Ben Cherington and Shelton.

Players spoke positively about the impact Shelton made in that regard in Year 1, unusual as the season itself might have been. Second baseman Adam Frazier said in late September that the atmosphere around the team felt like a “night-and-day difference from where we were last season at this point.” Shelton also seemed proud to share that one opposing manager described the Pirates as “relentless” last season, because he felt that reflected their work ethic and how hard they played.

That might not be what you expect to hear from or about a team that finished with the Majors’ worst record, one that spent this year building for the future and remains unlikely to contend in 2021. But players have publicly and privately praised the Pirates for their efforts to foster the kind of “player-centered” culture that Cherington and Shelton promised to build.

“As we go into 2021, I think something that’s really important to me is to continue to talk about the culture that we created, the foundation of the culture that we created in 2020,” Shelton said. “That was something that, as we talked about at the end of the year, was extremely important to our group and to me. I think this offseason we’ve continued that.”

For example, Pittsburgh’s front office and coaching staff made their players part of the process as they overhauled their performance team this winter. They were involved in interviews, offering feedback and suggestions on what they wanted out of their athletic training staff and strength coaches.

Shelton pointed to another event he viewed as an example of a more collaborative, harmonious relationship between players and staff. When Mitch Keller returned to the dugout during one of his final two starts with a no-hitter intact but a pitch count too high to stay on the mound, the rest of the rotation formed a barricade between Shelton and his starting pitcher and asked that Keller get one more inning. That didn’t actually stop him from informing the right-hander that his night was over, but Shelton recognized their lively support of a teammate as a good sign.

“That group of guys felt that comfortable to be like, 'Hey, No. 1, we can do this with the manager. No. 2, they knew he was coming out, but No. 3, they were so engaged in that,” Shelton said. “That made me step away and be like, 'We are developing the right culture. We are developing the right things here, and it's only going to continue to get better.’ And more importantly, the players are involved in it. They have a say in it. And that's kind of what we set out to do."

Camp competition is coming

Shelton said the Pirates have been candid with players about their aim to have “a lot of competition” for jobs and roster spots in Spring Training next year.

“Where it goes from there is going to be a little bit based on meritocracy. If you’re playing well and doing a good job, you’re probably going to continue to get opportunities,” Shelton said. “We’re in a situation where we want to get better. We need to get better, so we will take each opportunity individually. But competition is a healthy thing. I think it brings out the best in people.”

Barring trades or injuries, most spots in the lineup are already accounted for. Bryan Reynolds is going to play one outfield spot, and Gregory Polanco is going to start in right. Jacob Stallings will be the starting catcher. It’ll either be Josh Bell or Colin Moran at first, and they’ll both play every day if the designated hitter is back in the National League. Adam Frazier will play regularly at second base, and occasionally in left field, if he returns. Ke’Bryan Hayes is their third baseman of the present and future.

For position players, that essentially leaves job openings at shortstop (to be filled by Erik González, Kevin Newman or Cole Tucker), in the outfield (either left or center) and on the bench. There also figures to be plenty of competition in the rotation and even more in the bullpen.

“We’re fairly transparent with our players, so this isn’t going to be something new to them,” Shelton said. “When we [sat] down at the end of the year at our exit meetings, we talked about opportunities, we talked about competition, and we talked about the specific things guys need to do to get better to put themselves in situations to play more. I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s something that’s going to create energy in our camp.”

Around the horn

• Asked if the Pirates have a closer in mind, Shelton said, “I really don’t think we do.”

It's entirely possible that Pittsburgh won't designate one pitcher to work the ninth inning with a narrow lead, opting instead to mix and match with a group of high-leverage relievers. Right-hander Richard Rodríguez had four of the Pirates' six saves last season, but Shelton never officially named a replacement closer when Keone Kela was unavailable.

"The great thing about Richie is, the entire time he was doing it, every single day, he was telling me, 'Use me how you want. Use me as much as you want,'" Shelton said. "The fact that earlier in the year he threw multiple innings and has that flexibility, right now it would be too early to say that. We'll see how it works from there in the offseason."

• Unsurprisingly, Shelton said right-hander Jameson Taillon is preparing to be a starting pitcher next season. Taillon was sidelined this year while recovering from his second Tommy John surgery, but he’s felt healthy and strong this offseason. Need proof? Just check Taillon’s Twitter account -- or ask Shelton.

“He sends me video every three days of him throwing, and he’s really excited about it. And I am, too,” Shelton said. “If you’re the Pirates manager and watching Jamo throw, it definitely makes you smile, so I’m excited for it. He’s excited. His throwing’s going well. His rehab’s going well. He tackled it head on and did about as good of a job as anybody can do, so I’m excited to watch Jamo take the mound at PNC.”

• Pittsburgh rounded out its Major League athletic training staff on Monday by hiring Tony Leo as an assistant athletic trainer. Leo worked for the A’s last season as their infection control prevention coordinator after spending 23 years with the Twins organization, where he was the Major League head athletic trainer in 2018-19.

• The Pirates officially added catcher Andrew Susac to their list of Spring Training non-roster invitees on Monday, adding depth behind Stallings and Michael Perez. This move was expected when Susac re-signed with Pittsburgh on a Minor League deal shortly after the season ended.