PITTSBURGH — With baseball in a holding pattern and the Pirates reduced to informal workouts in Bradenton, Fla., postponing his Major League managerial debut, Derek Shelton has had time to pursue other interests.
He’s diving into the life of Pirates icon Roberto Clemente by reading a book he borrowed from general manager Ben Cherington. He’s reading another book about the Beastie Boys, one of his favorite groups. And he’s learned from his wife, Alison, and his daughter, Gianna, that a future career as a fourth-grade homeschool teacher is not in the cards.
“We had a Zoom call for math, which was compound fractions, which is about the only thing I can do in math. I did sit in on that,” Shelton said. “I found out both from Gianna and from Ali that I am not fit to teach any fourth-grade subjects because of my lack of patience. I will step back and let them do that.”
In the meantime, Shelton will continue to oversee what limited baseball work the Pirates can do. He held a conference call on Thursday with the club’s entire Major League staff, reviewing their Spring Training progress and discussing how they will move forward.
Nobody with the team, as far as Shelton knows, has been tested for COVID-19. But most players have returned to their offseason homes while Spring Training is suspended amid the national emergency created by the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, the Pirates have a skeleton-crew staff plus four locally based coaches leading workouts — mostly weight training, strength and conditioning — at LECOM Park. For Shelton, who lives near St. Petersburg, it’s a short commute south to his office.
Pitchers can throw three times a week. Hitters can take swings in the batting cages. Rehabbing players can get their work in. To avoid large crowds, one of the recommendations to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the Pirates have staggered their workout times.
“Nothing extremely advanced right now,” Shelton said during a conference call with local reporters. “It’s more guys staying in shape.”
When Shelton, Cherington and director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk met with players last weekend, they laid out instructions to keep them active and healthy during this downtime. But the tricky part now is that nobody truly knows when the pandemic will subside, which means they’re trying to plan for the start of the season without a firm idea of when it will actually take place.
“The big thing is, we have to make sure we concern ourselves with what’s going on in the world. Baseball is very much secondary right now,” Shelton said. “The thing that was paramount to us as an organization was making sure that the safety of our players and our employees was first. That’s really first and foremost.
“I think when we get closer to the situation of how we’re going to play games, we’ll have a better answer for that. But making sure that our players are safe and their families are safe and they’re healthy and informed on how things are going is the most important.”
The most challenging issue for the Pirates staff, particularly pitching coach Oscar Marin and bullpen coach Justin Meccage, as they suspended their formal workouts? Charting a course for their pitchers, especially their starters, amid all this uncertainty. Most of the Pirates’ rotation options were only an outing or two away from being fully stretched out for the beginning of the season, so where do they go from here?
“We don’t know when we’re going to start again. We have to make sure that we don’t go from [throwing 75 pitches] to nothing, and we also have to make sure that we don’t essentially, for lack of a better term, waste a ton of bullets trying to stay fresh,” Shelton said. “More than likely, it’s a gradual deload just to make sure their arm care situation is consistent. Then, once we do have a general timetable and we make sure arms are maintaining that strength, we will build back up.
“We’re in unknown territory in terms of how we’re doing this, not only as a society but in terms of preparing for a date we don’t know is going to be out there.”