Shelton expects 'fun journey' as spring starts

February 17th, 2021

PITTSBURGH -- The new year of baseball is finally here.

Pitchers and catchers are reporting. Blueprints are being laid for the season. Young guys are making first impressions with their clubs. Can you smell the maple bats and the leather gloves?

For the Pirates, the new season also comes with a new future-oriented direction made clear by a host of offseason moves. Of the 49 players used in games last season, 19 have departed, and chief among them were household names Josh Bell, Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon.

Though he said it was tough to lose valued guys such as those, manager Derek Shelton has been around long enough to understand the nature of the business. But he’s been looped into the conversations general manager Ben Cherington has had this offseason, and he can see what the moves are allowing the club to do.

“One thing that happens when you’re in a situation where you’re building a foundation to a club is the fact that you do have to trade away some of those guys,” Shelton said. “I’m sorry to see them go, but really excited about the players we got and how they’re going to affect the Pirates moving forward.”

The Pirates also lost a host of depth and bullpen options, but they supplemented those areas with the signings of Major League vets Chasen Shreve, Michael Perez, Brian Goodwin and Wilmer Difo, among others. Then there is a whole host of prospect talent -- both homegrown and acquired through trades -- that Pirates fans are eager to see as management looks to determine which ones will become core pieces of the next playoff-contending team.

So now comes the area where managers must excel: Getting these guys to mesh with the rest of the clubhouse and buy into what they’re trying to accomplish. That’s especially true for the first-timers at camp, including top prospects Nick Gonzales (Pittsburgh’s No. 1 prospect in 2020), Quinn Priester (No. 4) and Liover Peguero (No. 5).

“I think with that group, it’s as much establishing the culture,” Shelton said. “We established a culture last year. … Some of these guys haven’t had the opportunity to be around us, to be around me, to be around our coaching staff. It’s just to kind of integrate them into that.”

As far as new player leadership, that’s to be determined. Bell had been the on-field face of the franchise since 2019. Musgrove was the Opening Day starter last season. Despite injuries keeping him off the field for much of his tenure, Taillon was one of the most loved players in Pittsburgh in the last five years and the Pirates’ representative to the MLB Players Association.

However, Shelton believes that leadership can’t be forced and that it will take time to identify who will step up this season.

“Leadership happens organically,” he said. “I don’t think that you can establish that one person is a leader because of X, Y and Z. With the people that we traded away [being] leaders, we’re going to see some guys step up and take those roles. I’m excited to see who those people are, but I’m not going to tell someone they have to do that or appoint someone.”

The Pirates will need to bounce back from a number of shortcomings in 2020, especially on the offensive side. Seven of their nine regular starters had career-low OPS marks. The team was last in the Majors in runs scored (219), on-base percentage (.284) and OPS (.641). And with the exception of Bell, the bulk of the lineup will remain the same in ‘21, but Shelton hopes that his group won’t put on blinders and pretend these results never happened.

“I don’t think you leave it in the past,” Shelton said. “I don’t ever think you leave anything in the past. I think you use it as motivation or a foundation to build forward.”

The team will need to rally together to compete this season, judging by the projections. FanGraphs playoff odds were released on Tuesday, giving Pittsburgh a 0.4 percent chance of making the postseason. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections put the Pirates finishing 61-101.

Meanwhile, Shelton, who said he doesn’t pay attention to projections and speculation, was nothing short of upbeat talking about what he sees for the Pirates this year and in the coming years. He’s ready to win.

“This is going to be a fun journey, because we’re going to win,” Shelton said, “And if it takes time, I’m all in for the time, but I can’t wait for our fans to ride this journey with me and the group.”