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Friday July 25 2014
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Taking The Reins

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It was late April in Atlanta, and the Pirates were trailing the Braves 4-2 in the bottom of the seventh, with a man on and no one out. The game was threatening to get away from the Bucs.

The Braves' Martin Prado had taken Brad Lincoln deep to open the inning, Freddie Freeman followed with a single and Lincoln had just fallen behind in the count 2-1 to Brian McCann.


”Someone’s got to get out there and talk to Lincoln,” noted Braves color analyst Don Sutton. “Lincoln is really laboring and he’s fighting himself. He needs a teammate to help him take a breath here.”


No one did. Lincoln fought through the at-bat and eventually walked McCann.


“One of these infielders really needs to visit the mound,” reiterated Sutton, a four-time All-Star with 324 wins and 3,574 strikeouts to his credit. “Just to let their pitcher cool down a bit.”


Yet the Pirates’ infield—Garrett Jones (31-years old) at first, Neil Walker (26) at second, Josh Harrison (24) at shortstop, Pedro Alvarez (25) at third and second-year catcher Mike McKenry (27) behind the plate—stood by as Lincoln struggled. He eventually gathered himself and induced Dan Uggla into a fly-out. Tony Watson entered the game and got the final two outs of the inning.


After the teams took the field for the next half-inning, Braves announcer Jim Powell noted the ages—and the limited major league experience—among the Pirates infield, suggesting the reason no one went to the mound to take charge was that no one felt empowered to do so. After all, Jones, by far the senior member, owned just owned three years of major league service.


No one is suggesting the Pirates have a leadership issue – just the opposite, in fact. The team entered June playing .500 baseball despite a pitching staff that was among the best in the National League and an offense that was dead last. Several prominent starters had endured prolonged slumps, veterans were moved in and out of the line-up—and younger players were shuffling up and down from the minors—due to offensive lapses. That kind of cocktail has been toxic to many locker rooms, but the 2012 Pirates have thus far remained resistant to any real conflict – typically a sign of quality leadership among the players.


Yet the lack of players willing to step forward during that rough half-inning in Georgia does serve to highlight the youth and inexperience on the Pirates roster.


“Sometimes everybody looks for that experience, and when you lack the major league experience some guys don’t tend to listen, or they’re not going to follow your lead as much,” acknowledged first-baseman Jones. “So it takes that major league time, and games played, and years put in, to kind of earn that respect and earn that leadership.”


photo by Chuck LeClaireThe kind of experience Jones is talking about is not something the Pirates have much of.


Pitchers A.J. Burnett (7 playoff games), Juan Cruz (10), Jason Grilli (5), Doug Slaten (3), infielders Clint Barmes (4) and Casey McGehee (6) and catcher Rod Barajas (5) are the only members of the team with any postseason experience. Most of the roster has not even been through a contract negotiation let alone a postseason run.


“Guys with 10, 12, 14 years of experience, and maybe a couple of playoff runs,” are the types of players who typically emerge as leaders in the clubhouse, according to former Pirate and current Washington Nationals outfielder Xavier Nady. “Or a guy who has been someplace for a number of years, and maybe has become the face of a franchise. Those are just the kinds of guys players naturally gravitate toward.”


It can be difficult for a young player to step up and “take the reins” of a team, so to speak. When the majority of the team lacks significant experience, however, there is often little choice but for a relative youngster, or group of youngsters, to take control.


“As far as young guys go, you’ve got to know when you’re able to speak up,” warns second baseman Neil Walker, a third-year player who is beginning to take on a leadership role. “When you’ve had some experience here, when you’ve had some time in the big leagues, when you’ve done some things that are going to make your teammates say, ‘OK, by the way he plays, by the way he speaks, how he goes about his business, he is displaying leadership qualities and that merits our listening to him.’”


Pitching coach Ray Searage says that teams with a core group of players who spent time together in the minor leagues can often develop leaders during that time, and that leadership can transfer to the major league level.


“Definitely,” he said. “There’s strength in numbers.”


Searage referred to the Los Angeles Dodgers of the 1970’s and their core group—Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Steve Yeager, Bill Bucker, Bobby Valentine—that broke into the majors around the same time. He said that Garvey became something of a leader during minor league stints in Albuquerque and Spokane, and carried that leadership up to the major league level with the Dodgers for over a decade.


“When you’ve got guys that come up through the minor leagues together, they kind of develop a culture,” explained infielder Casey McGehee, in his first season with the Pirates after spending the last three in Milwaukee. “I think that’s important when you’re trying to build something – to get a group of young players together who believe in something and develop a collective personality, and then build around that.”


The Pirates feel they have that core in Andrew McCutchen, Walker, Alvarez and Jose Tabata.


photo courtesy of Pittsburgh PiratesMcCutchen broke into the majors to stay in 2009; Walker, Tabata and Alvarez followed a year later. Walker, Tabata and Alvarez all played together at triple-A Indianapolis for a time in 2010, and Walker and McCutchen basically have traveled through the Pirates farm system together since they played for the same double-A Altoona team in 2006.


“We just try to augment what they’re already doing,” said McGehee, who said he witnessed similar growth in Milwaukee, joining the team just as players like Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder were breaking into the big leagues. “You can’t try to force (leadership) down their throats by bringing in guys from the outside. It’s got to develop naturally.”


That natural development appears to have taken course despite the team’s struggles this season – or, says Walker, perhaps those struggles revealed the players who ultimately have become leaders.


“That’s when your leadership abilities come out the most. That’s when you find out the most about people,” said Walker. “There are people that are just going to grind through the tough times that really make you the person you are, but more than that, the player you are… It’s not always easy. It’s not easy for guys to keep their heads up, but you know what? It really goes a long way.”

I was in a minor league press box in Charlotte, NC, last month, taking in one of Gregory Polanco’s final triple-A games. A colleague, upon learning I was from Pittsburgh, approached me with a question.
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