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Clubhouse culture an important part of Pirates’ focus

Hot Stove notes and observations leading up to Major League Baseball’s fast-approaching spring traning:

n The Pittsburgh Pirates had a disastrous second half of the season on the field in 2019, and clubhouse friction between players and/or coaches played a significant role.

Three separate incidents pointed to a corrosive inhouse culture that screamed for changes at the top.

Ownership staged a complete management housecleaning at season’s end, and the Pirates are beginning the 2020 season with a new team president, new general manager, and new field manager, as well as several new coaches.

As important as improving between the lines will be for the Pirates, developing a sense of team cohesiveness will be an even bigger priority for a club that finished last in the National League Central Division last year for the first time since 2010 and is facing a rebuilding process.

Don Kelly, who was hired as the team’s bench coach and will serve as new manager Derek Shelton’s right-hand man, stressed that a large part of the accountability surrounding the team’s culture will lie with the players themselves.

“You hear about the stuff that has gone on,” Kelly said while visiting Altoona recently as part of the Pirates’ Care-A-Van. “Going into this year, it’s a new year. Really, it’s all about the players ultimately. They’re the ones that have to hold each other accountable in the clubhouse.”

That may be more difficult for a team that has lacked veteran leadership in recent seasons, but the players can still follow the lead of the new coaching staff and learn to police themselves.

“It starts with the (coaching) staff implementing that, and (the players) will take it on and grow with that,” Kelly said.

It can’t happen too soon. As the Pirates proved all too well last year, a house that is divided is a house that falls apart.

n Kelly, 39, is widely regarded as one of the game’s bright young minds, and a future managerial candidate.

A first base coach with the Houston Astros last season, Kelly — a Butler native and former Pirates utility player — figures to cut his teeth alongside Shelton this season.

Shelton was the bench coach for the Minnesota Twins last season, and Twins manager Rocco Baldelli offered Shelton the opportunity to partake in several managerial duties — including holding conferences with the media — in a good-hearted effort to prepare him for this promotion.

Shelton will do the same for Kelly, who will be afforded considerable game-by-game input.

“I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of good managers,” Kelly said. “I love the game, the strategy of the game. I’ve always loved the intracies of the game. Managing is something that I’ve thought about. I would love to be a manager someday, but I also love being here as the bench coach and helping Sheltie in any way that I can.”

n The outlook for the Pirates is more bleak at this season’s outset than it has been in some time. The Bucs have several talented young building blocks on the field, but just not enough of them right now to justify much optimism.

Marked improvement from the starting pitching staff — particularly Chris Archer, who has been a major disappointment since his arrival from Tampa Bay in 2018 — will be necessary for this team to have any hopes of avoiding a fourth losing season in five years.

n It doesn’t help the Pirates’ cause that a team like the NL Central Division rival Cincinnati Reds has been one of the most aggressive in the major leagues in acquiring free-agent talent this offseason.

The Reds have a promising pitching staff, and their acquisitions of infielder Mike Moustakas and outfielder Nick Castellanos — who both had breakout offensive seasons in 2019 — should bolster a batting order that already boasted third baseman Eugenio Suarez, who clubbed 49 homers last year. Suarez, however, recently underwent shoulder surgery after a swimming pool accident and won’t return to the field until the early part of the regular season. Nonetheless, the Reds appear to be a team on a mission.

n Look for the Chicago Cubs to part with all-star third baseman Kris Bryant sooner rather than later. There has been bad blood between the Cubs and Bryant, who recently lost his grievance against the Cubs over service time, and several teams will be in the market for his services at third base.

n Two of those teams, the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals, lost out on the bidding war for slugger Josh Donaldson, who left the Braves to sign with the Minnesota Twins.

John Hartsock can be reached at jhartsock@altoonamirror.com

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