BRADENTON, Fla. -- It could feel counterintuitive to the extreme for the Pirates to toss their car keys to the players who, fairly or not, participated in a 93-loss season culminating in an epic collapse.
So they aren't ... entirely.
Derek Shelton's authoritative stride and voice have already made an imprint in the early going of spring training, and it couldn't be clearer who's in control. Upon the very first workout, he was bouncing from station to station, drill to drill, sometimes asking questions, other times barking orders, other times -- and this occurs a lot with him -- laughing and joking.
"We're gonna have fun," as Shelton would word it afterward. "I've waited too damn long for this job for it not to be fun."
Well, there's no way for any setting to be fun, of course, if it's being had by just one individual, no matter how influential. The players have to be part of it. And they've been that. It's been equally evident.
"It's just ... looser," Kyle Crick was telling me. "It feels more like we're being trusted, as players. And that's a good feeling."
The trust goes deeper than being able to take a gag, though. Several of the more experienced players with whom I spoke in the opening few days told tales of meeting Shelton here or there for lunch, of communicating via phone or text. And in every case, it sure seemed like it was Shelton seeking most of the advice and wisdom rather than vice versa.
Which, to hear those players tell it, is a welcome departure from the past.
No, nobody ripped Clint Hurdle or anyone on Hurdle's staff by name. Given that some on that staff are still here, that wouldn't be all that smart. But they did applaud -- openly, enthusiastically -- the difference they detect in that approach, specifically, where their input's being valued at every turn.
"They're definitely listening, not just Shelty but everyone on the staff, and that's been great for us," Joe Musgrove told me. "And the questions they're asking, it's about getting to know us, about finding out what works for us. It's not just saying, 'Hey, here's how to do this,' or 'Do it this way.' It's been about finding out about us."
It hasn't just been about performance, either. The group dynamic, the clubhouse leadership and other intangibles -- "Our culture," as Musgrove calls it -- also have brought about heavy back-and-forth, with the players, here again, giving the lay of the land.
What makes this different than the past?
That's been harder to figure out because, to repeat, no one seems eager to slam Hurdle, a good man. But there's undeniably a sense that, with Hurdle, although his office door was always figuratively open, he'd had his mind made up on principles and philosophies that'd guided him through a lifetime of baseball. Whereas Shelton's not going to stubbornly stick by something that doesn't work for -- or with -- a specific player.
This all originated, by the way, with Ben Cherington. Upon being hired, he used the term 'player-centric' in every other sentence. He'd refer to it most often as it applied to prospect development, but he also emphasized -- and his was one of the stances that endeared him to Bob Nutting in the interview process -- that development wouldn't stop in Pittsburgh, that players would continue being treated as individuals even years after becoming Pirates.
“Obviously, they had a great run, the staff that was here before,” Chris Archer would say of Hurdle, Ray Searage and the rest, “but this is very refreshing and adds a lot of excitement coming into camp.”
Just as obviously, we'll see what all this winds up meaning.
• One open criticism of Hurdle came from Crick regarding Hurdle's frequent late-game replacements of the starting catcher: "Quite frankly, we as pitchers need that consistency of having the same guy back there owning that game. Some of the most important innings are the eighth and ninth, and I never understood changing the catcher, because that guy's in control. He's worked that game. He's worked with that umpire. He's established his strike zone. He's worked the other team. No matter who the guy is, he doesn't want to come out, either, trust me. That's his game. It'll be nice to have that change." -- DK
• Speaking of relaxed, it's been quite the sight to see Cherington working his way around camp, as well, in a light gray Pirates hoodie, pausing to engage in conversation with most anyone he comes across. There's no buttoned-up Neal Huntington in that, and there's definitely no faux-military Kyle Stark. Some of Cherington's early public remarks have reminded many, myself included, of similar phrases to ones Huntington used, but there isn't much in common. -- DK
• Don't presume Cherington's done with the signing of Jarrod Dyson. No, the payroll's not about to make some spike -- as if I needed to say that -- but he'll be checking out available relievers as late as the final week of spring training, I'm told, though that'll depend on how the pitching staff shapes up in camp. -- DK
• I've been getting a mixed response from how the Pirates were using video in the minor-leagues under Huntington. This is essential for player development now, allowing a player to see what they're doing rather than just relying on coaches to tell them. Talking to a few young players who study a lot of video, one said it was always accessible, while another painted a more gloomy picture: "In the [Arizona] fall league, we [players from other franchises] all talked. I realized we weren't using it as much," that player told me. The Pirates already have hired video people for 2020, including for their short-season affiliates, and Cherington reemphasized using analytics and video in his front office hires this offseason. -- Alex Stumpf in Bradenton
• While it's far too early to assess how well the Jason Zucker trade will work out for the Penguins (or Minnesota, for that matter), Jim Rutherford has been around long enough to appreciate that the right acquisition can help to make a championship run possible, while others that seem well-conceived can simply not have anything close to the expected impact. Rutherford considers one he made while with Carolina in 2006, to get Doug Weight from St. Louis, to be the best deadline deal he has struck -- it helped to make the Hurricanes' Stanley Cup that spring possible -- although it came a bit before the trade window actually closed. "We were having a good season and we jumped in early, in January, and got the guy everybody wanted," he said. Rutherford also said that acquiring Mark Recchi from the Penguins, who got Niklas Nordgren, Krys Kolanos and a second-round draft choice in return, at that deadline "proved to be really good, too." He agreed that landing Justin Schultz from Edmonton for a third-round draft choice at the 2016 deadline "turned out good," too. The flip side of those is a deadline deal he struck with Ottawa two years ago, when he parted with Ian Cole, Filip Gustavsson, a first-round draft choice and a third-rounder to fill a hole on the No. 3 line. "The obvious one that didn't work very well was (Derick) Brassard," Rutherford said. "We really needed (a center). We were short there, and he was a guy a lot of teams were trying to get. He didn't fit as well as we had hoped. That's the way it goes sometimes." -- Dave Molinari
• TSN, a Canadian network, includes St. Louis defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, a Penguins alum, on its list of the 40 NHL players/assets most likely to change teams before the trade deadline. (Whether the cardiac arrest teammate Jay Bouwmeester experienced during the Blues' game in Anaheim Tuesday would affect management's willingness to trade Bortuzzo isn't known, assuming St. Louis was looking to part with him in the first place.) If the Penguins are interested in adding a defenseman who plays with a nasty edge (skeptics can check with Evgeni Malkin's ribs for confirmation) to a defense corps that doesn't have a lot of physicality, especially on the right side, he might merit consideration, assuming the asking price is reasonable. Bortuzzo wouldn't be a classic "rental" because he has two years remaining on a contract that carries a salary-cap hit of $1,375,000, but he plays a defense-oriented style and could provide an element not found on the Penguins' current roster. -- Molinari
• Bill Guerin, the former Penguins winger and assistant GM who is in his first season as GM in Minnesota, is facing a major rebuilding project with the Wild. Not surprisingly, he turned to an organization with which he is quite familiar when it was time to make his first significant move: The trade Monday evening that sent Zucker to the Penguins. Rutherford, failing to suppress a chuckle, joked later that "I can't deal with that guy," but it was apparent that he enjoyed dealing with a protege. "It was good," he said. "This is Billy's first deal. He's made himself a good deal, for what he's trying to do there. We've talked back and forth a lot ... A lot, just because of our friendship since he's been gone. It's a deal each team got what they were trying to do at this time. Hopefully, it works out for both sides." -- Molinari
• I asked a couple of people in the building today about all of the "hot takes" hitting the airwaves in the past week or so about the Steelers wanting to be rid of Ben Roethlisberger. I got quite a few rolls of the eyes. If you had any question about whether the Steelers want Roethlisberger back, consider that Kevin Colbert came armed with stats to back up why the team wants its star QB back in 2020. Colbert stopped to look up the Steelers' record -- 120-21 -- when the team holds opponents to 21 or fewer points when Roethlisberger starts as proof of that. Colbert went out of his way to point that stat out when talking about why he feels better about the team heading into 2020 than he did a year ago. -- Dale Lolley at Rooney Complex
• One of my takeaways from Colbert's session was that the Steelers are leaning toward keeping Vance McDonald. "Sometimes they play when they’re not 100 percent. In the course of a season, they’re all playing at less than 100 percent. When he’s healthy, he’s a quality NFL starter," Colbert said. As I laid out during the week, the Steelers hold a $5.5-million option on McDonald's contract this season, making his cap hit $7.2 million. But given what a "quality NFL starter" would cost in free agency, keeping McDonald could be the cheaper option. Then again, Colbert said the team will hold its free agent meetings next week before heading off to the NFL Scouting Combine the following week, so things could change when the Steelers start looking at the best way to free up cap space. Just know that a portion of the $5.5 million they would save by not picking up McDonald's contract would have to be spent on a replacement. And there's no rookie tight end in this draft who is going to come in and be an immediate starter. -- Lolley
• Colbert did say the team likes the progress made by Zach Gentry in his rookie season. But expecting Gentry to go from appearing in four games as a rookie, to starting in 2020 is a pretty big stretch. At best, he's a depth player in 2020. -- Lolley
• The Steelers remain optimistic they'll get a compensatory pick for the loss of Le'Veon Bell. Those picks were announced Feb. 22 in 2019 and Feb. 23 in 2018, so they should soon find out. Sticking with that date, the compensatory picks should be announced next Friday, Feb. 21. If the Steelers get a third-round pick, as expected, it would be a big deal for a team that doesn't have a pick currently until the 49th selection and then not again until its two picks in the fourth round. -- Lolley
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