Derek Shelton answers questions at a news conference after he was introduced as the new manager of … [+]
Derek Shelton is playing from behind, but it doesn’t bother the Pittsburgh Pirates’ manager.
The Pirates hired Shelton last Wednesday, ending a major management shakeup. It started when manager Clint Hurdle was fired Sept. 29 before club president Frank Coonelly was jettisoned Oct. 23 and general manager Neal Huntington got the ax five days later.
The order of the firings was different from how most professional sports teams operate. Usually the president goes first, followed by the GM and then the manager.
Because owner Bob Nutting decided to do things in unorthodox fashion, the Pirates got a very late jump on the offseason. GM Ben Cherington wasn’t hired until Nov. 18, seven weeks after the season ended, and his first order of business was to restart the manager search begun by Huntington.
Cherington quickly narrowed the field to two candidates, Shelton and Tampa Bay Rays bench coach Matt Quartaro. Both had already been interviewed by Huntington and his staff and Cherington was familiar with each.
Shelton got the job following a two-year stint as the Minnesota Twins’ bench coach and now has a lot of catching up to do with the start of spring training barely two months away.
For starters, Shelton does not have a coaching staff. Hitting coach Rick Eckstein is expected to be retained but all the other positions appear wide open.
Shelton also needs to begin building relationships with his players.
He had the opportunity to have lunch with right-hander Joe Musgrove, who was in town this week making promotional appearances on behalf of the team. Shelton also met up with first baseman Josh Bell, who spends his offseasons in Pittsburgh.
Shelton has also spent many of his waking hours tracking down other players on the phone.
Yet Shelton is undeterred about starting off in a bit of a hole, especially when it comes to the coaching staff.
“It’s something we’re working on and we have a good start,” he said. “Ben has a pretty big Rolodex and I have a pretty big Rolodex and our baseball ops department did a good job of making a list of potential candidates. I feel very good about our chances of putting together a strong staff.”
If nothing else, Shelton learned patience during the Pirates’ drawn-out managerial search. He joked that he cleaned out the garage of his home in St. Pete Beach, Fla., at least 15 times while waiting to see if he would get his first shot at being a major league manager.
“I don’t know if I was the best person for my wife and family to be around,” Shelton said with a smile.
Shelton is an upbeat person by nature, though, and couldn’t stop smiling during his introductory press conference Tuesday. And Cherington couldn’t say enough nice things about his new manager, who is taking over a team that finished 69-93 last season and was last in the National League Central for the first time since 2010.
Shelton will need to stay positive while stepping into a difficult situation.
The Pirates’ 2019 record speaks for itself and was punctuated by a second-half collapse in which they went 25-48 following the All-Star break. Compounding matters, there were multiple incidents between players and staff members as well as All-Star closer Felipe Vazquez being jailed on charges of having an illegal sexual relationship with a minor.
Shelton understands he is not going to magically make all the Pirates’ problems disappear.
“For me to instantly think I’m going to walk in the clubhouse, that because people have said positive things about me that everybody is going to trust me and everybody is going to like me, I realize that’s not true,” Shelton said. “It’s my job and the job of our baseball ops and the coaching staff on a day to day basis that we’re building relationships and we’re building that trust and we’re giving players the opportunity for our voice to be heard.”
And Shelton believes that relationships will be key to turning around a franchise that has finished below .500 in three of the last four seasons, 23 of the last 27 and 29 of the last 40 since the franchise’s last World Series appearance and title in 1979.
“I’m a person who likes to be out of the office, likes to talk to guys. Likes to talk to them about a bunch of different things,” Shelton said. “I think that’s what myself and my staff will bring.”