PITTSBURGH -- Shortly after he was named the Pirates’ team president last October, Travis Williams stated a number of goals for the organization. He wanted to create a “culture of winning on the field, a culture of success off the field” while building relationships with fans, improving the fan experience
PITTSBURGH -- Shortly after he was named the Pirates’ team president last October, Travis Williams stated a number of goals for the organization. He wanted to create a “culture of winning on the field, a culture of success off the field” while building relationships with fans, improving the fan experience at PNC Park and making a commitment to the community.
During Spring Training 2020, Williams talked about all of those ideas and seemed ready to start rolling out changes. Then the COVID-19 pandemic changed everyone’s plans. Williams’ first season on the job saw the Pirates win only 19 of their 60 games, no fans at PNC Park and Williams himself test positive for COVID-19.
“I’ve jokingly said to people here that I’m not sure that my first-year plan entailed not selling one ticket, one hot dog, one beer or one jersey at a game in my first year,” Williams said at the end of November. “Despite all that, there’s been a lot of positives that have come about throughout the course of this year -- despite the difficulties that we’ve all had, not just in our league and with the Pirates but across our entire nation.”
That might sound overly optimistic. After all, the Pirates finished the season with the Majors’ worst record, and the canceled Minor League season made it difficult to show any progress within their farm system. But Williams is pleased with what the organization accomplished in spite of all that, on and off the field.
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When the pandemic created unprecedented need in the community, the Pirates worked to give back wherever possible, and they continue to do so. They couldn’t host fans at PNC Park this year, so they experimented with ways they could virtually re-create elements of the ballpark experience.
Williams made it clear he wasn’t happy with Pittsburgh’s record, despite its focus on building for the future, but he saw important signs of progress considering where the team was a year ago. He never promised or even expected that general manager Ben Cherington would immediately turn the Pirates into a contender. In fact, on the day he was introduced, Williams asked fans to be patient and explained they wouldn’t be able to just “flip the switch and all of a sudden have a winner on the field.”
Williams is still taking the long view, asking fans to stay patient while remaining confident that the Pirates are heading in the right direction.
“Like we said when I came on board -- and I think Ben has reiterated since -- this is not going to be an overnight, flip-the-switch situation where all of a sudden we’re going to be a championship-caliber team,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. That includes acquiring more prospects, [and] continuing to develop all the prospects that we have and those that will be acquired.
“There’s going to be a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of getting that roster where it needs to be relative to a championship-caliber team. But that’s a challenge and an opportunity that we embrace and are looking forward to over the next couple of seasons as we march toward that championship-caliber team.”
With that in mind, Williams chose to highlight three areas where the club took steps forward over the past year.
• The improved atmosphere in the Pirates’ clubhouse, a focal point under manager Derek Shelton and something players raved about even as they struggled. It was, Williams said, “a clubhouse culture that we can not only be proud of, but one in which our players can thrive.”
• Their renewed focus on player development under Cherington, who encouraged a more player-centered approach at the alternate training site and instructional league camp while acquiring high-upside prospects in the Starling Marte trade, in the Draft and on the international market.
“Really trying to refocus our player-development efforts around that player-centered development culture, not only at the Minor League level but continuing on into the Major League level, allowing our players to not only reach their full potential but in some instances exceed it,” Williams said. “We’re starting to see the fruits of that labor early on, but a lot of that work will continue and only get better over time."
• The brief looks they took in the Majors at such future building blocks as starter Mitch Keller, who finished an injury-interrupted season with 11 hitless innings, and rookie third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, who was unquestionably the team’s best player after his Sept. 1 debut.
“We got a real glimpse of some of the young players and what’s in store for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the future,” Williams said. “I could look at it and say, ‘We had a 60-game season. We didn’t have the number of wins we’d like to have had.’ But set that all aside. If we really focus in on what’s going to be important for the future of this organization and is going to be the groundwork and the foundation for a championship-caliber team of the future in Pittsburgh, I think all three of those things are going to be really important, and we’ll reflect back on this year and realize that it actually helped set the course for that trajectory.”
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter @adamdberry.