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The big takeaways from Pirates camp (so far)

February 21, 2020

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Friday was a short workday at Pirate City. With the wind whipping and temperatures dropping into frigid-for-Florida territory, the Pirates did most of their work indoors, then packed up and left to take part in their annual charity golf tournament.

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Friday was a short workday at Pirate City. With the wind whipping and temperatures dropping into frigid-for-Florida territory, the Pirates did most of their work indoors, then packed up and left to take part in their annual charity golf tournament.

The two-week workout phase at Pirate City, organized and executed by bench coach Don Kelly, went as smoothly as they could have hoped for. On Saturday, the next stage of Spring Training will begin. Pittsburgh will open its Grapefruit League schedule at LECOM Park with a 1:05 p.m. ET game against the Twins, manager Derek Shelton’s former team.

Before moving forward, let’s look back at some of the bigger-picture takeaways from the first portion of the Pirates’ Spring Training camp.

1. The mood is more relaxed, but they’re still getting work done
The start of Spring Training is always the most stress-free part of the baseball calendar. But there’s a different feeling around Pirate City this year beyond just that. There’s a desire to, as Keone Kela put it, “change the narrative” about the organization.

The military-minded motivational quotes and inspirational messages were taken off the walls outside the clubhouse, replaced by pictures of former Pirates legends and the club’s retired numbers. Rather than following a set routine, players warmed up for their daily work as they saw fit. The meetings were quick and direct, and the workouts were shorter.

In short, the front office and coaching staff trusted the players to prepare and behave like big leaguers, and players are holding up their end of the bargain by taking the work itself seriously.

"Especially the ones that have established themselves, [it’s] trusting them more and focusing on different things rather than controlling things that a big leaguer should already know how to do,” starter Chris Archer said. “It's more focused on on-field play, on-field execution, making the individual a better baseball player, instead of worrying about little things that don't matter. It's more of an open, newer mindset.”

Is that going to translate to wins and losses? Maybe not directly. But it should lead to a healthier clubhouse environment, something the Pirates need after the turmoil that defined the second half of last season.

2. There’s been greater and smarter use of technology and analytics
You can’t miss the cameras around Pirate City -- the Rapsodo units set up in front of bullpen and back-field mounds or in front of the plate, the high-speed Edgertronic cameras capturing pitchers’ deliveries.

For whatever reason, in recent years, the Pirates fell behind the curve when it came to using technology and information to help players get better. Several Pittsburgh players have said that they’ve been presented with data they previously didn’t know existed and that it’ll change the way they prepare and play. Mitch Keller, for instance, received a rundown of his fastball usage from pitching coach Oscar Marin and bullpen coach Justin Meccage.

Marin led a classroom-style session at the start of camp to help pitchers and catchers understand and take advantage of the information that is being made available to them.

Marin's approach paying off for Bucs

“The worst thing we can do is put stuff out there and then have [pitchers] ask questions like, 'Why is all of this out here? How is this going to help me?'” Marin said. “That explanation of it early on really clarified it for those guys. Now, they're asking questions, which is exactly what we want."

Another big part of that is…

2a. Everyone seems to be on the same page
The Pirates have put a few analytically minded front office staffers in uniform this spring, including Major League advance coordinator Aaron Razum, who has a big hand in their pitching preparation and development. During every workout, the areas around each field were flooded with baseball operations staffers mingling with coaches, players and each other. It’s a small but noticeable change.

One day, general manager Ben Cherington spent about an hour talking with chairman Bob Nutting and president Travis Williams. While those three haven’t spent nearly as much time working together as Nutting did with Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington -- and Williams seems comfortable being more hands-off on the baseball side than his predecessor -- they seem to share a vision for the organization.

3. We haven’t learned much (if anything) new about the Opening Day roster
Nobody expected Shelton to nail down the Opening Day lineup in mid-February, but it’s become quite clear that the Pirates are going to let Spring Training play out a bit before publicly committing to just about anything.

We can safely assume certain parts of the roster are set, but Cherington wouldn’t even specifically address which positions are open for competition. In hindsight, it’s a little surprising that Shelton officially named Kela the closer as early as he did.

With that being said…

3a. There’s going to be a lot of competition in camp
They haven’t named a starting third baseman. They haven’t said who’s going to share time with Jacob Stallings behind the plate. The back-end rotation jobs are up for grabs. The bench composition is unclear. And the bullpen is a wide-open race that could be influenced by a bunch of factors: Minor League options remaining, open 40-man roster spots, handedness, experience, versatility, etc.

They did seemingly answer one question, however, by signing veteran Jarrod Dyson to play center field. That keeps Bryan Reynolds in left and Gregory Polanco in right, with Guillermo Heredia now their likely fourth outfielder or a platoon partner with Dyson.

4. “Team build” vs. rebuild
For all the predictions that the Pirates would immediately tear down their roster and start over, the only notable contributor they dealt away was star center fielder Starling Marte. That’s a huge loss, obviously, but it’s not indicative of a full-scale rebuild -- a word Cherington has avoided since he was hired.

Cherington offered some insight into the Pirates’ plan when discussing their intent to eventually increase payroll, saying that will happen “over time as we get deeper into our team build.” Maybe it’s a matter of semantics, but the GM clearly wants the focus to be on getting better -- not getting worse to eventually get better.

The Pirates want their build to be based on the foundation of young talent currently in the organization, but it’s evident that they realize they need more impact talent -- and a lot more Major League-caliber depth -- to get where they want to go. That will take time, and possibly more trades like the Marte deal.

5. Young players are carrying themselves with confidence
Keller said he wants to be the ace. Oneil Cruz said he wants to jump from Double-A to the Majors this year. Younger prospects like Jared Oliva and Blake Cederlind are earning attention and acting like they belong.

In some places, young players -- especially those who haven’t reached the Majors -- are encouraged to be seen but not heard. But those are the players the Pirates must build around, the ones they must properly develop and promote. Pittsburgh has recognized and acted upon the importance of making them feel welcome in big league camp.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.