New Pirates general manager Ben Cherington, manager Derek Shelton and their respective staffs spent ample time working through a plan when it came to spring training and the ramp up to the 2020 season.
Now, after the COVID-19 pandemic has altered/obliterated much of that work, Cherington and Shelton are, like the rest of us, living day-to-day and hour-to-hour, trying to make the smartest decisions with the information they have at a given time.
They’re also, above all, prioritizing health, as Major League Baseball has essentially shut down spring training — at least for group workouts — and delayed Opening Day by eight weeks because of COVID-19.
“We’re working quickly toward a much, much smaller base of operation in Bradenton and in the Dominican Republic,” Cherington said on a conference call with local reporters this week.
“We’ll continue to follow guidance from MLB, our health experts and the government,” Cherington added. “We have gotten really good support from both MLB and our health team. We’ll continue to focus on safety first and foremost.”
Answering questions right now is tough for Cherington or anybody else, simply because this entire thing has been a massive, moving target. Information on COVID-19 and how society — forget baseball teams — should combat it seems to change every couple hours.
But Cherington, to his credit, did outline as much as he could about what the Pirates are doing right now and what this means for their internal operations. Here are a few of the highlights:
— The “vast majority” of Pirates players are either in their home states or Bradenton, Fla. For those who remain in Florida, the workouts are mostly individual and will be done throughout the day to practice good social distancing. Many of those guys are either rehabbing injuries or it was determined that they’d be more safe in the United States.
Camps are closed to media, and no teams have provided lists of who’s working out where.
Cherington said the Pirates are doing the same thing in the Dominican Republic, where some guys might stay at the facility for the sake of safety.
— This past Saturday, Cherington, Shelton, director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk and a few others met with players to discuss being in a “ready state” for when games start up again. Cherington didn’t cite a specific time frame — say two weeks or a month — for how long the Pirates would need to get up and running again. His answer on the topic was more about the process for players.
“That might look different for different players, the idea being optimally guys would stay in some sort of ready state so that when we do have better information on a season start, we’d be in a position to ramp up more quickly than we would in a typical year,” Cherington said. “But I can’t tell you exactly how long we’d need.”
— Nobody has explicitly told the Pirates they couldn’t hold group workouts, Cherington said. It’s been more about making the facilities — in Florida and Pittsburgh — available should anyone need them and also having the appropriate amount of support personnel on hand.
— Cherington is currently not under any restrictions when it comes to roster moves, although the Pirates are hoping to get some clarity on that in the coming days. Ditto for opt-out clauses, Cherington said.
“We do have a small handful of players who have clauses in their contracts coming up at the end of March where we’re waiting for more clarity as to whether we’ll have to make that decision on those dates or whether those dates will be pushed back,” Cherington said. “We’ll know more about that in the coming days.”
— While playing a 162-game schedule starting on approximately Mother’s Day — factoring in the eight-week, CDC-recommended delay — sounds extremely unlikely, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is not yet ready to commit to playing fewer games. Speaking Monday, Cherington sounded a little more realistic when it came to how 2020 would unfold.
“The direction and message we’ve gotten from Major League Baseball and our hope, with every intention, is there will be a season,” Cherington said. “We will play major league games and minor league games in 2020 and play as many of them as we can. I think there’s a level of confidence that that will happen, but of course none of us can know for sure.”
— The extra time may provide Cherington and the Pirates the opportunity to gather some additional intel either on themselves or others. While the immediate goal is to get everyone “home and safe and where they feel most comfortable,” reality says there will probably be a month and a half or so while people are looking for something to do.
Maybe the Pirates do a deep dive on some part of the NL Central. Or perhaps they find some other piece of internal information to track. Whatever ends up happening, as Cherington said, it will be about putting the time to good use.
“We’ll look for ways to take advantage of this time to continue to be productive,” Cherington said. “Within baseball operations, we’ve started to talk about what that might look like and how can we get ahead of work that maybe otherwise at a time like this you just wouldn’t have as much time for. That’ll come in time.
“Short-term, we’re just focused on making sure everyone’s safe.”