As they add, Pirates see winning ways on horizon

January 27th, 2023

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates took their lumps last year. They are, at their core, a young team, one that will get younger as the season goes along. But with a handful of new -- and familiar -- faces in the mix, the Bucs aren’t thinking of more growing pains.

They’re thinking about winning.

“With [Andrew McCutchen] and the other signings that we made, it's just brought a buzz to the guys that are on the team,” said pitcher Mitch Keller. “We're all texting each other. The word that's going around is 'win.’ That's what we want to do. Winning is on the forefront of everyone's mind. That's all we're talking about.”

The optimism is warranted. On paper, the Pirates are positioned to win more games than the 62 they secured in 2022. They expect to return a core featuring the likes of Keller, Bryan Reynolds, Oneil Cruz, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Roansy Contreras. They should add to that core as top prospects, such as Henry Davis, Endy Rodriguez and Quinn Priester, graduate from prospect lists. And, over the course of this offseason, the Bucs have complemented their youth by adding experience all around their roster.

“They’re going to help us in our clubhouse, where now we’re to the point where some of these young guys are taking steps forward,” said manager Derek Shelton. “Having veterans is going to be helpful. Then, some of the guys we have here are taking steps forward. Mitch took steps forward. [Hayes] took steps forward. Bryan took steps forward. It’s good to be able to add guys into that group.”

The headliner of Pittsburgh’s offseason, of course, is the aforementioned McCutchen, who had plenty of opportunities to observe the Pirates last year with the Brewers. When Shelton and McCutchen talked this offseason, McCutchen began the conversation with Pittsburgh’s next generation.

“One of the first things Cutch said to me was, ‘You guys have a good, young core.’ That’s exciting to me,” Shelton said. “He’s a guy who played in our division last year and saw us play. I think it is important, and I think it symbolizes or maybe even reflects what we’ve tried to do here and what we’ve tried to build.”

Shelton noted that McCutchen’s return is unquestionably a cool story, but he emphasized that McCutchen provides on-field value. Shelton anticipates that McCutchen will spend time at both left and right field, but he also added that the team needs to be cognizant of his workload.

Along with McCutchen, the Pirates have added veterans in left-handers Rich Hill and Jarlín García; first basemen Carlos Santana and Ji-Man Choi; right-hander Vince Velasquez; and catcher Austin Hedges. All of the above have knowledge to impart. For Shelton, the acquisitions of seasoned players serve a testament to what Pittsburgh is fostering.

“The one thing about veteran players is they have the opportunity to go where they want to go,” Shelton said. “The exciting thing for us was these guys chose to come here and chose to come here because they’ve seen the culture that [we’ve] been building and the young players that [we] have.”

Added outfielder Canaan Smith-Njigba: “Getting to this level, you didn't just do it by yourself. You’ve got to have guys who mentor you through the ups and the downs.”

Shelton knows that his approach to managing Pittsburgh's veterans will be different than how he handles the youth. He said his conversation with newcomers is “a little more poignant,” but he understands that his older players will be willing to have more feedback and provide different ideas and perspectives.

“I think ultimately it’s just communication, but it’s different kinds of communication,” Shelton said.

With additions to every position group, Shelton emphasized that there will be plenty of competition during Spring Training.

“When you sign veteran players, you know they’re going to play,” Shelton said. “You know they’re going to be on the club. For the young guys who got this opportunity, now there’s competition. There are guys at those spots, then there’s competition amongst that young group, which I think is really important for us.”

Shelton affirms stance on Reynolds
At the Winter Meetings, Shelton expressed his belief that Reynolds, whose trade request became public in December, would not be a distraction come Spring Training. On Friday, Shelton maintained that stance.

“I talked to Bryan yesterday. He continues to work,” Shelton said. “We had a good conversation. I don’t expect it will be an issue at all."