PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pirates manager Derek Shelton knew there would be growing pains when he took over a team in transition in the fall of 2019. He had no idea how right he’d be, for reasons that had nothing to do with actual baseball.
Trying to lead a young team in the midst of a massive top-to-bottom overhaul is one thing. Trying to do it in the middle of a pandemic — with all the restrictions and logistical hurdles that came with it — is another.
A sense of normalcy has returned as the Pirates head into 2022. As eventful as his stay in Pittsburgh has been, Shelton believes his team and the franchise is better for it.
“I think we’ve talked about a lot through the past two years about ducking and diving and dodging — whatever the five Ds of dodgeball are — but the one thing we’ve looked at is how we can get better, what forces us to get better,” Shelton said.
There’s still nowhere to go but up. While general manager Ben Cherington has painstakingly rebuilt the farm system, most of the talent he’s acquired over the last 30 months — including first-round picks in catcher Henry Davis and infielder Nick Gonzales — is still a ways off from walking out of the dugout at PNC Park in a Pirates uniform.
The major league roster remains a mishmash of a young(ish) core the team can build around like third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and All-Star center fielder Bryan Reynolds, and veterans like pitcher Carlos Quintana and catcher Roberto Pérez, who signed one-year deals hoping to resuscitate their careers.
While Pittsburgh brought in a new hitting coach in hopes of bringing life to a lineup that finished last in runs scored, home runs, and slugging percentage and re-signed first baseman Yoshi Tsutsugo after a promising stint near the end of last season, generating offense consistently is likely to remain a problem. A pitching staff that was one of only three teams to post an ERA north of 5.00 has not really been upgraded.
It could lead to another summer where losses outnumber wins, though Shelton knows the franchise’s focus remains — for now — on the club’s long-term future. His job is to make sure he’s getting the most out of the present. To that end, he respects his team’s resilience amid a turbulent transition.
“I think the one thing that can always be said about our group is they play hard every day,” Shelton said.
To avoid a fourth straight last-place finish in the NL Central, they’ll have to. The Pirates open the season April 7 at St. Louis.
Jacob Stallings won his first Gold Glove while managing a pitching staff that amounted to a revolving door. His reward? A trade to Miami for a couple of prospects.
Enter Pérez. The 33-year-old, like Stallings, is a defensive wizard. Unlike Stallings, Pérez struggled to stay on the field during his final two seasons with the Indians. He’s eager to hit reset in Pittsburgh.
“I have a lot of great memories from my time with Cleveland and had a great opportunity there,” he said. “I’m thankful for that but I’m also excited to be here. I like the atmosphere so far. It’s chill.”
ROOKIES TO WATCH
The first real splashy arrival of Cherington’s tenure may come in the form of towering 6-foot-7 shortstop Oneil Cruz. The 23-year-old hit his first big league homer during a brief cameo at the end of 2021. He has shown flashes of power during spring training but will start the season at Triple-A Indianapolis after appearing in just 70 games at all levels last year.
One of the team’s surprising developments last season was the evolution of reliever David Bednar. The Pittsburgh-area native appeared in 61 games, posting a 2.23 ERA while going 3-1 and earning three saves, thrusting himself into the conversation to be the closer in 2022.
“Honestly, I haven’t thought too much of it,” Bednar said. “Whenever the phone rings, I’m going to be ready, and just trying to punch some tickets. That’s all.”
KEYS FOR KE’BRYAN
Hayes was limited to just 96 games last season because of a left wrist injury that made it painful to swing a bat. He’s hoping for a bounceback at the plate to complement the kind of defense that became his calling card during his rise through the minors.
“That was a little bit of a roller coaster for me. I had to grind through it,” said Hayes. “Once I can be in that lineup every day, I know things can take care of themselves.”