BRADENTON, Fla. -- On Thursday, the Pirates showed up for work and played the Blue Jays at LECOM Park like it was any other day. Now, considering recent recommendations from health officials amid the national emergency created by the coronavirus pandemic, it’s hard to say when they might take the field next.
With baseball on hold for now, let’s look back at the five weeks the Pirates spent in Spring Training and reflect on five things we learned.
1) The atmosphere really was different
New general manager Ben Cherington set out to create a “player-centered” culture, and the Pirates responded well to it. They also took well to first-time manager Derek Shelton’s more laid-back approach, focusing on intentional work and real relationships over early-morning eyewash and motivational messages.
• Each club's key takeaway from Spring Training
There was less division based on service time and prior accomplishments. The whole roster didn’t have to crowd Spring Training dugouts to watch games. Players were permitted to drive to road games, regardless of their experience. The dress code was relaxed. Pitchers weren’t run ragged on their non-throwing days -- they came in and got their work done, then left to rest and recover.
Essentially, Cherington and Shelton -- and the new skipper's coaching staff -- asked the players to take accountability for their own careers, and players showed their appreciation for that level of respect and responsibility by not abusing it. In turn, a clubhouse that revealed its obvious fractures during the second half of last season felt more unified this spring.
Whether any of that will translate into more success on the field remains to be seen, and keep in mind Cherington has been clear that the Pirates are building “toward” a winning team in the future. But the early returns led to a largely positive, optimistic atmosphere this spring.
2) The pitching plan was modernized
Perhaps the biggest difference in Bucs camp was on the pitching side, where pitching coach Oscar Marin and bullpen coach Justin Meccage worked to implement a more data-driven, individualized program. There were changes visible throughout camp -- more technology in use, analytics staff in uniform, more collaboration -- but you could pick up on this by talking to pitchers and catchers.
The catchers prioritized pitch sequencing and framing. The pitchers talked about throwing their four-seam fastballs high in the strike zone and tunneling that pitch with high-spin curveballs -- a more effective attack plan in the launch-angle era, especially compared to their previous reliance on two-seam fastballs down in the zone.
We heard from several pitchers who were paring down their arsenals, focused more on emphasizing their best pitches rather than adding below-average offerings just for the sake of having them. Top prospect Mitch Keller, for instance, spoke perceptively about the information he received from Marin and Meccage and how it might help him.
3) Some young players stood out, and some might be sticking around
Cherington has repeatedly stated that he believes the Pirates are embarking on a “build,” not a “rebuild,” because of the young talent already on the roster or in the system. We saw some of it this spring, and we heard that the Pirates' front office is interested in locking up players for the long haul.
Shortly before Spring Training was suspended and the start of the season was delayed, we learned that the Pirates have approached a handful of young players -- Joe Musgrove, Bryan Reynolds, Kevin Newman and Ke’Bryan Hayes among them -- about long-term extensions.
It’s unknown how this pause in the schedule might affect contract negotiations and service time, but at the very least, it became clear the Pirates are serious about liking some of the players they have on board.
Hayes once again enjoyed a strong spring showing, putting some of the work he did with hitting coach Rick Eckstein on display in games while still playing his usual brand of elite defense at third base. Intriguing shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz, hard-throwing reliever Nick Burdi and relief prospect Blake Cederlind were among the other young Pirates who stood out to their teammates this spring.
4) Health clarified some roster spots … but they may be unclear again
The Pirates’ Opening Day pitching staff seemingly came into focus after the retirement of Tom Koehler and injuries to righty reliever Clay Holmes and lefty Steven Brault. Keller and non-roster lefty Derek Holland became the obvious options to round out the rotation behind Chris Archer, Joe Musgrove and Trevor Williams, especially with Chad Kuhl deliberately progressing through Spring Training in his return from Tommy John surgery.
Now, obviously, nothing’s for certain.
Depending on when the season starts, it’s entirely reasonable to think that Brault and maybe even Holmes could be back on the mound in time. And if we’re looking at an abbreviated season, any potential restriction on Kuhl’s workload might become irrelevant. Would that jeopardize Holland’s spot in the rotation? Perhaps not, as Holland was mostly effective this spring -- not to mention he instantly became a popular presence in the clubhouse.
That would create some interesting decisions in the bullpen as well. Without Koehler and Holmes, it became increasingly likely that the Opening Day bullpen would include closer Keone Kela, Kyle Crick, Richard Rodríguez, Edgar Santana, Michael Feliz, Nick Burdi, Chris Stratton and one more pitcher -- potentially a lefty or a late addition.
It’s a more complicated situation with Holmes, who is out of Minor League options, because he looked good this spring. Then it would get really tricky if they want to make room on the big league staff for him, Brault and Kuhl while also holding on to Holland.
5) With little power, they need lineup depth to emerge
In their final game, the Pirates offered a potential preview of what would have been their Opening Day lineup at Tropicana Field. The batting order went like so: Newman, Reynolds, Adam Frazier, Josh Bell (as the designated hitter), Gregory Polanco, Colin Moran, José Osuna (at first base), Jarrod Dyson and Luke Maile.
Catcher Jacob Stallings should be their starting catcher with Maile as the backup, but otherwise, that’s the lineup Shelton realistically might have run out on Tropicana Field two weeks later.
• Breaking down the Pirates’ lineup construction
There are some interesting hitters in that group, particularly with Newman and Reynolds back up top and Bell batting cleanup, but there isn’t a ton of home run power. That group combined to hit 117 home runs last season, eight fewer than the Cubs quartet of Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Javier Báez and Anthony Rizzo. The Pirates clearly want to play better defense to support their pitching staff, but they need to find offense somewhere as well.
In the absence of game-changing power, they need depth. They need Newman, Reynolds and Bell to be what they were last season, and they need someone else to step up. More specifically, they need Polanco to emerge as the threat he was for most of the 2018 season. The good news on that front? Polanco was healthy all spring, he put together good at-bats, and he frequently hit the ball hard when he made contact.
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.