Future Pirates try to keep busy while learning, waiting
Tonight: Pittsburgh at Chicago White Sox, 8:10 p.m.
Pitchers: Pirates LHP Steven Brault (0-0) vs. White Sox RHP Lucas Giolito (2-2)
TV: AT&T SportsNet
Many Altoona residents have driven slowly by PNG Field or even stopped and peered into the gate to try and catch a glimpse of what players at the Pittsburgh Pirates’ alternative training site have been up to this summer.
Ironically, some of the players have wondered the same thing about the population of Altoona as both worlds exist so close to each other but yet so far away.
“It’s kind of discouraged to go anywhere,” Pittsburgh Pirates left-handed relief pitcher Braeden Ogle said. “We’re not supposed to go, sit down and eat. We really only go to the places we need to, like if we need something at the grocery store or something. We’re wearing our masks all the time, sanitizing hands all the time and we’re trying to be really careful. We’re just sitting back at the hotel playing a lot of video games.”
Ogle is one of around 25 players who have been training at PNG Field each day along with coaches Brian Esposito, Joel Hanrahan, Jon Nunnally and Miguel Perez.
“It’s my first time at the stadium,” Ogle said. “It’s a great place. It’s all you could ask for, and the grounds crew takes really good care of the field. The playing surface, grass and mound have all been really nice. That’s all you can really ask for as a player.”
Ogle, a 23-year-old fourth-round draft pick of the Pirates in 2016, follows a pretty routine schedule.
“We show up at 3 o’clock, and we test every other day for COVID,” Ogle said. “We eat, and then you go out and get early work in if you have it scheduled. Then we stretch and do agility work. Other than that, it’s a lot of stretching and throwing for pitchers. That’s pretty much it, unless you’re in the game, which usually takes place around 7:30. If you don’t have a game, you usually lift or get out of there, because they don’t like people sticking around longer than they need to.”
Ogle may have found himself at Altoona this season even if everything played out normally and there was a regular minor league season.
Right-handed starting pitcher Max Kranick, an 11th-round draft pick by the Pirates in 2016 and who is also training at PNG Field, may end up in the Curve’s rotation in 2021.
“It’s an awesome park, and it’s nice to have one with an upper deck level,” Kranick said. “It’s been a long time since I pitched in a stadium like that. I’m excited that hopefully next season, I’m not sure whether I’ll be here or not, but hopefully it’s in front of the fans. I heard that pretty much every game here there’s a good amount of fans in the stands. I’m excited to get back to that atmosphere.”
Other players, like 2020 first-round draft pick Nick Gonzales, have an opportunity to make a splash in the organization much quicker than first expected.
“Defensively and offensively, I have been able to make jumps, because I am getting hands-on instruction that you might not really get during a season, because you are worried about games every day,” Gonzales said. “You can go out there and not worry about performing right now, because you’re working on some things. It really will help us in the long run.”
In fact, due to being one of only a few groups of players in the organization currently participating in active workouts, it isn’t out of the question that Gonzales could play for the Pirates before playing for any of their minor league affiliates if an outbreak were to occur similar to the one the Miami Marlins experienced.
“Yeah, it’s a crazy opportunity and something I had never really even thought about,” Gonzales said. “It’s definitely something in the back of your head when you put in that work every single day and continue to work hard. You never know what could happen.”
Impressed with Altoona
Gonzales was the No. 7 overall pick in June and then was assigned to the Altoona alternative training site in July.
“It’s been awesome and a wonderful ride,” Gonzales said. “I’m super blessed and fortunate that the Pirates allowed me to come to Altoona and practice and do everything that’s going on here with them. That was huge for me, because training during quarantine can get difficult. Not getting live reps is tough, so being able to come here is awesome.
“I think the town is awesome. It’s real small, and it’s just all baseball with the COVID-19 right now, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I really enjoy being out here and learning so much from all the guys.”
Ogle said there have been plenty of changes this year, and not just the ones that are obvious.
“It’s just nice being here and being able to at least do something,” Ogle said. “We’re getting our work in, and it’s a little more hands-on this year. We’re doing a lot of stuff with analytics and our pitching coaches. Instead of playing regular games constantly, we’re getting a little more instruction. That happens because we’re not playing regular games every day, and we’re getting more practices.”
Miss ‘lights and crowd’
Though the players are competing in simulated “games,” the atmosphere is much different than even what the Pirates are doing in front of no crowds.
“I threw two days ago, and I was the only one that threw,” Ogle said. “So, the game was half an inning. I threw my inning, and that was it. If a starter has to throw, they are built up to about five innings now. You face the same hitters, and they kind of cycle through and then they go out in the field and come in. I miss the lights and the crowd, because you get a little extra on your fastball.”
The players’ activities are monitored and scheduled to limit the amount of people at PNG Field.
“We have our scheduled times to come in so they know when everyone is coming and when everyone is leaving,” Gonzales said. “We get there, and I go to the cages and get my work in there. Then I get my defensive work in before practice. We work on defensive positioning as a team, take some batting practice and then play a game afterward.”
Other than players rehabbing from an injury, players being sent down from the Pirates or new signees, the simulated games are always against the same competition.
“You definitely miss playing other teams,” Gonzales said. “You miss it, but other people are in situations where they aren’t seeing anything right now. They are just at home, so for me, it’s not too bad.”