Bucs rely on depth as 20-game slog begins

Nearly three weeks without an off-day could provide 'opportunities' for prospects

June 22nd, 2021

PITTSBURGH -- “Workload management” have been buzzwords of the 2021 MLB season for good reason. Coming off a pandemic-shortened season, teams have planned out -- sometimes, on the fly -- how to effectively limit innings for injury prevention while getting players enough reps and staying competitive.

The Pirates’ workload management plans will be tested greatly over a stretch of 20 consecutive games, which began Tuesday when they hosted the White Sox at PNC Park.

“This is when we're getting a stretch [when] we’re really having to watch it -- not just for our starters and relievers, but for our position players,” manager Derek Shelton said.

Shelton and his staff have already shown signs of exercising caution with starting pitchers in the past two weeks. When at-bats have gotten extended or a guy has begun to labor through an inning, the Pirates’ skipper hasn’t been afraid to pull his starter with a pitch count below 80 or so.

But with 20 consecutive games coming up, the Pirates may not be able to afford to do that with too much regularity, even with an eight-man bullpen. They could shuffle relievers with options up and down if the starters are only covering 4-5 innings each time out over the span, but the Pirates’ leadership group will have to weigh how useful it is burning options vs. other methods of management.

With some on-the-fringe Major League arms at Triple-A, including Cody Ponce, Beau Sulser and Steven Wright, Pittsburgh could also use a game or two in the stretch as a spot start for one of them. It would be a great time to bring up Miguel Yajure, the club’s No. 11 prospect, for one more look, but he’s currently dealing with right forearm/elbow discomfort at the Pirates’ Minor League complex in Bradenton, Fla.

“It would not surprise me if you see guys get opportunities within this stretch, guys getting a little bit of a blow and then other people getting opportunities,” Shelton said.

The position player aspect will be interesting to watch as well, and though it likely won’t be as in flux as the pitching situation, it will call for flexibility. Shelton and his staff tend to plan out scheduled off-days well in advance for this group, but it may have to be in pencil this time. One or two injuries, as the Pirates have had to weather throughout the season, could change the complexion of who is called upon when.

Chicago connection
Shelton was growing up in the Chicago area when current White Sox manager Tony La Russa began managing the South Side club in 1979. The Pirates’ skipper remembers seeing La Russa take the helm at the young age of 35, fresh out of law school and, against what seemed like stacked odds at the time, he stuck with the job for parts of seven seasons.

“He was like the standard bearer for new-age people, because nobody managed at that time at that age,” Shelton said. “That’s what I think about. Hall of Famer, really smart guy, ahead of his time.”

What stood out the most to Shelton about La Russa, who is second all-time in wins by a manager in MLB history, is simply that -- the way La Russa has been able to commit to the game through the many iterations and culture shifts it has gone through.

“This job is 24/7, all the time,” Shelton said. “To do it for as long as he has as well as he has and then changing with how the game has changed, it’s extremely impressive.”