BRADENTON, Fla. — Over the past five years, being a Pittsburgh Pirate meant watching the baseball world around you evolve at warp speed, a revolution spurred by technology and development altering the game in an almost unimaginable manner.
It meant greeting new teammates who spoke of their previous organizations as if they were faraway planets, with glowing details of helpful new-age statistics, high-tech devices and the personnel available to maximize performance.
And it meant bidding farewell to old teammates who struggled in Pittsburgh but found new life elsewhere – be it Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole in Houston, Tyler Glasnow or Austin Meadows in Tampa Bay – and wondering if they’d ever have such success stories of their own to tout.
That time has not yet arrived. Yet, with a top-to-bottom regime change in Pittsburgh, a culture that players describe as uncreative and overly rigid – even militant – has given way to embracing progressive development and a player-driven atmosphere aimed at maximizing performance.
Out are team president Frank Coonelly, general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle, a trio that helped snap a 20-year drought of losing seasons and earn three consecutive playoff berths from 2013-2015, only to see things spiral in the years since as the industry moved forward around them.
In are new club president Travis Williams, GM Ben Cherington and first-time manager Derek Shelton, who in stops with Tampa Bay and Minnesota saw firsthand how mid-market clubs can develop championship-caliber clubs.
For a core group that suffered through a tumultuous and embarrassing 93-loss season in 2019, the fresh blood in the front office and fresh air in the clubhouse so far feels like a perfect balm.
“There’s no eyewash, there’s no showing up to meetings that don’t really matter,” All-Star first baseman Josh Bell tells USA TODAY Sports. “It’s easy to come in, shake hands and ball. It’s an experience that’s new on both sides, the front office and us. But we’re both embracing it.”
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Particularly after a season that went from unremarkable – 44-45 at the All-Star break – to terrible to toxic in a hurry.
The Pirates lost 23 of their first 27 games to start the second half. In September, they endured a nine-game losing streak during which they were outscored 87-26. In between, the clubhouse crumbled under Hurdle, the low point perhaps when reliever Keone Kela was suspended two games for a reported altercation with a member of the coaching staff.
“I think everyone is just excited to be done with 2019,” says starter Trevor Williams. “We are excited to re-prove ourselves, not only to coaches that don’t really know us, but to a league that can see us kind of a laughingstock last year, with everything that was going on on and off the field.”
The Pirates haven't reached the postseason since 2015. (Photo: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports)
‘We’re all going to be so much better’
Cherington passed on chances to interview for a handful of GM openings since the Boston Red Sox nudged him aside during the 2015 season. In Pittsburgh, he works for an owner, Bob Nutting, who has disillusioned a fan base tired of his tight-fisted spending; as the Pirates tumbled in the standings, so, too, did their attendance – from 2.25 million in 2016 to 1.49 million last season.
Cherington was attracted to the job because the Pirates, he says, because they “really matter – to baseball, at large, and matter to Pittsburgh, for sure.” He realizes Pittsburgh will never be Boston from a payroll standpoint, but emerged confident after conversations with Nutting and Pirates team president Travis Williams that player development resources will be abundant.
“Look, it’s never going to look the same in Pittsburgh as it will in other markets, but you could say that about a lot of teams,” says Cherington. “I’m really confident the resources are here to do what we need to be excellent in baseball operations”
Including no cap on, say, a $5,000 camera to aid in a pitcher’s development?
As Pirates pitchers throw live batting practice, a screen is set up behind the pitcher, shielding coaches, laptops and an Edgertronic camera from harm. The device used to break down a pitcher’s delivery to the most extreme degree is all over baseball now, along with its cousins Rapsodo and Trackman.
A GM’s tenure can’t always be traced to one transaction, but in Pittsburgh, the July 31, 2018 trade of Glasnow, Meadows and prospect Shane Baz to Tampa Bay for Chris Archer certainly accelerated Huntington’s demise. At the time, it looked like an aggressive and fan-friendly move: Meadows and Glasnow had stagnated in their development, and dealing them for Archer, a two-time All-Star, at a time Pittsburgh was just three games out of a wild-card spot was exciting.
A year and a half later, it looks like the kind of deal that sets back a small-market franchise for years.
Its most damning element is what Glasnow and Meadows became in Tampa Bay – and what they never were in Pittsburgh. Meadows hit 34 home runs in an All-Star campaign last year, while Glasnow – at 6-8 and armed with a devastating 98-mph fastball – posted a 1.78 ERA in 12 starts last season.
Bell remains good friends with Glasnow and is thrilled for his success. He’s more excited at the thought the Pirates might find a few more like him.
“It’s exciting to see,” Bell says of the club’s warmer embrace of technology and development, “because guys would come over from other organizations talking about it and we’re like, ‘Yeah, we have no idea. We’re just trying to hit spots.’ And then you see guys like Glasnow and Charlie Morton going to other organizations with those electronics and they’re finding themselves. They’re understanding what makes them the best version of themselves and that’s what the front office is trying to give us.
“We’re all going to be so much better.”
Glasnow’s uptick was almost immediate, shaving his WHIP from 1.45 in 34 2018 appearances in Pittsburgh to 1.10 in 12 starts with Tampa Bay to close that season. He credits his work with Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder for his turnaround, along with the information and atmosphere the organization provided.
“I’d never say anything bad about Pittsburgh,” says Glasnow. “I don’t want to sound like a (jerk), but (development) was more like an educated guess. They were more, I guess, cookie cutter. If it doesn’t work, do this and you don’t really have the freedom to do what you want. I want to be myself. That was harder there.
“It was pretty strict the entire time – it was very, like, militant. And that depends on what your cup of tea is. For me, I’d rather have a more relaxed atmosphere. There’s so much stress on you as a professional athlete, you don’t need to add any more.”
Says Williams, whose ERA rose from 3.11 in 2018 to 5.38 last year: “We are in an information age. It can be a detriment, but it also can be a huge help. I think all the tools are out in the open with us now, and in years prior I don’t think we utilized it as much as we could have.”
Eventually, getting lapped externally created significant friction internally.
Kela calls 2019 “one of the weirdest years of my life, for baseball,” but believes the fresh start afforded players – and the man tabbed to lead them – will redefine the clubhouse.
“It’s kind of good to cleanse the air not just for the staff but the players,” says Kela, “to take ownership and responsibility of the new opportunity given us.”
As for Shelton?
“Great man,” says Kela. “You know the old school game of ball where, (shoot), if you ain’t got no skins on the wall, the manager might not glance at you? He goes out of his way to acknowledge every single player and see not just how they’re feeling, but insights on their personal life.
“This is a fun game, but it’s also a business. His job is to win ballgames and make us better baseball players. To him, I’m glad the other stuff matters. It speaks volumes to who he is internally, as a man, outside of being this manager.”
Shelton just missed on the Minnesota managerial opening a year ago, but new manager Rocco Baldelli – with whom he’d worked in Tampa Bay – and baseball operations head Derek Falvey retained him as bench coach. His hiring in Pittsburgh after several such near-misses has been greeted with near-universal industry acclaim.
Shelton believes that he’s “in the right place” and that the set of managers under which he’s worked – a group that includes Terry Francona, Joe Maddon, Kevin Cash and Baldelli – and the long leash afforded him in those jobs will be a significant asset.
Cherington, who helped build the Red Sox's 2013 World Series champions and laid the groundwork for much of their 2018 squad, says he won’t mind if Shelton manages up a bit.
“He is really smart and passionate about the game and has been exposed to a lot of good ideas, which makes me better,” says Cherington, who was Toronto’s assistant GM last season. “It was attractive to me to hire someone who I thought would make me better at my job. I think Shelty already has and will.”
Yet the Pirates hope to build accountability that doesn't start at the manager's office. Starter Joe Musgrove – acquired from the Astros in the Cole deal – acknowledges the 2019 club was “lacking a little bit of leadership on the coaching side and on the player side.” He envisions an atmosphere that is self-policing, that the team can take it upon themselves to, as he put it, “close the doors and clear the air” in a fashion that didn’t occur last season.
“It’s going to be a fun year, man,” Kela promises, “regardless of what people say and what things look like on paper. We’re a bunch of grown-ass men playing a kid’s game, and we all know what the expectations are.
“I think it’s cool that nobody is counting us in, because we have the opportunity to surprise people.”
Bell believes a relatively quick turnaround is possible, as well, that gains can be made with the players on hand. And, in the bigger picture, that the club will unearth a gem that in past years was discovered elsewhere.
“I’m excited to see who the next guy is who figures it out,” says Bell, “and makes a name for himself. This time, for once, wearing the uniform of the Pittsburgh Pirates.”
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