PITTSBURGH -- The last time the Pirates took the field as a team, they were playing the Blue Jays in a Grapefruit League game on March 12 at LECOM Park in Bradenton, Fla. Joe Musgrove pitched into the fifth inning, Bryan Reynolds and Cole Tucker homered, and it was all overshadowed by the news that Spring Training was being suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.
On Friday, 40 Pirates players will get back on the field at PNC Park for the club’s first full Summer Camp workout. It won’t look the same as their mornings at Spring Training. The players will be split into smaller groups, with their arrivals staggered throughout the day so they adhere to health and safety protocols. They’ll keep their distance when possible. Masks aren’t just for catchers anymore.
“I remain hopeful and confident and optimistic that we’re continue to march towards playing,” Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said. “At the same time, though, we’ve got to be super vigilant as we get a larger group of players back into Pittsburgh, and then ultimately [at the alternate training site in] Altoona also.
“We’ve got to remain really disciplined, make sure that everyone in that group really understands why it’s so important that we follow the protocol … and really practice good behavior away from the facility. Confident and optimistic, but also very clear that we’ve got to continue to be very disciplined.”
Along with that uncertainty, the abrupt end to Spring Training created unexpected cliffhanger endings to some of the most prominent storylines in Pirates camp.
Here are a few to keep track of as their workouts resume this week:
1. How does this affect the new regime’s plan?
Back in Spring Training, Cherington and new manager Derek Shelton were off to a successful start in their efforts to build a more cohesive, comfortable working environment.
Cherington brought the baseball operations department together and encouraged a collaborative process among staff, coaches and players. Shelton supported his players and let them be themselves, creating a more relaxed clubhouse. But what happens now that they’ve had to scrap what they had planned?
Cherington has often spoken about the club’s build toward a winning team -- not a rebuild -- so it’s still vital that they use this year to evaluate the talent the Bucs have and determine how to build around it. Can they do that during a shortened season, with only a handful of top prospects working out at their alternate training site?
There’s also this: A 60-game regular season will lead to outcomes that would have been unlikely in a 162-game season. Teams that weren’t supposed to contend -- like, say, the Pirates -- could ride one big winning streak -- like, say, the Pirates’ 11-gamer in 2018 -- into the postseason.
“I know that’s been the conversation that Shelty and the staff have focused on with our players,” Cherington said. “There’s an opportunity here, in 60 games. That’s a different schedule than 162 games. It’s a different season -- different rules, different environment. Let’s be prepared to take advantage of that. Certainly feels like our players feel the same way. We’re excited to get into it.”
2. Full participation, full cooperation
Cherington, Shelton and player representative Jameson Taillon all recently said they haven’t heard of any Pirates players who intend to opt out of the season. That could change, but the team expects everyone in its player pool to report to camp.
The Pirates have not reported any players who have tested positive for COVID-19, even as Allegheny County has seen a recent increase in cases. The challenge will be keeping players safe and healthy by sticking to the protocols in place and encouraging players to be mindful of their behavior away from the ballpark.
“There's going to be awareness,” Shelton said. “And I think a big part of it [that] comes down to us and the players is that we're just educating each other about what the protocols are."
That could change the pitching strategy, with Shelton acknowledging that the team might get creative with the fifth spot in the rotation behind Musgrove, Trevor Williams, Mitch Keller and Derek Holland. Maybe they’ll use an opener or piggyback starters, or maybe they’ll use a traditional fifth starter, perhaps Brault or Chad Kuhl.
The Pirates must also determine how many relievers they want on their 30-man roster to begin the season. Shelton said Pittsburgh’s starters are in good shape coming into camp, but they won’t want to push them too hard too fast and risk an injury.
Beyond that, one of the most intriguing storylines in Spring Training was the work of new pitching coach Oscar Marin and how his forward-thinking approach might help unlock the potential of such pitchers as Musgrove, Keller and Holmes, among others.
4. Which young players will step up, and which ones might stay put?
These questions might not be answered until the season begins. Can Keller cement himself as a foundational part of the team? Will starting pitching prospects like JT Brubaker get a look at some point? How about relief prospects like Blake Cederlind and Nick Mears? Could we see younger prospects like Oneil Cruz and Jared Oliva by the end of September?
But the biggest question mark heading into camp might be Hayes, the club’s top position-player prospect. How soon will he be on the active roster, and can he claim a spot in the everyday lineup? Along those lines, will we hear any more buzz about possible long-term contract extensions for such young players as Hayes, Reynolds, Musgrove and Kevin Newman?
5. Position battles 2.0
The Pirates hadn’t decided many of their position battles when they were forced to break camp in March, so they still have some work to do before finalizing their Opening Day roster.
How will they round out the rotation? Who’s going to start at third base? How will having a designated hitter affect their bench? With additional rosters spots available, how will they shape the bullpen in front of closer Keone Kela?
When they take the field on Friday, they’ll have about three weeks to figure it all out.