The Pittsburgh Pirates, for the past few years, have used their fall instructional time to put their young prospects through workouts like Navy SEALs training and things they call “hell week,” the majority of which involved strenuous, and sometimes dangerous, physical activities that have nothing to do with baseball. This has come up before, but it’s back in the news again, thanks to a few recent news articles.
It has come to light again thanks to an article by Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, who wrote the following yesterday:
[Pirates first-year farm director Larry] Broadway told the assembled players this would be their “rite of passage” to become Pirates, then sent them on a two-hour scavenger hunt for envelopes hidden across the complex.
(Don’t ask. No idea.)
At 5 a.m., after a wink or two of sleep, they were bused over to Bradenton Beach for a two-mile run, followed by relay races in which they ran back and forth filling garbage cans with sand.
(Don’t ask. No idea.)
At 1 p.m., after more non-baseball drills back at Pirate City, they played an actual game against Toronto’s prospects.
This doesn’t sound like the best use of their off-season time.
Most teams use this time to work on the weaknesses of players. Perhaps a player learning a new position can get more repetitions in game action that doesn’t matter as much. A pitcher who needs to work on his change-up gets extra chances to throw them to hitters.
But at no point, does a garbage can-filling sand relay race help a player become a better baseball player.
The point of these exercises, the Pirates front office have claimed, is to build leadership, camaraderie, and a team concept among their young players, all of which is fine, except half of these players won’t even make it to the major leagues, and a portion of the ones that do will be doing it for other teams.
The biggest concern, however, has not been the Pirates wasting their player’s time, but the concern over putting these players in harm’s way. Many of the exercises they are doing are dangerous, and they appear to present an unnecessary risk to the team’s valuable commodities.
Top prospect Jameson Taillon injured his knee in one of these activities prior to the 2011 season. The injury wasn’t serious, but it could have been.
Kovacevic cites a potential injury to prospect Gregory Polanco that may have gotten worse due to this fall’s activities:
Polanco’s ankle was sprained in mid-August, and it cost him most of his final month of play. But the Pirates still saw fit to have him participate in that first day with the SEALS last month, and as you might guess, the ankle was re-injured.
Worse than before.
It happened during a drill in which Polanco sprinted across the outfield, through an above-ground pool of ice water, then leaped into a sand pit.
Kovacevic cites Polanco himself (speaking through an interpreter) as describing how he re-injured the ankle. Tim Williams of PiratesProspects.com, disputes this claim:
I received word today that Polanco played the last day of instructs, left with a clean bill of health & is in the DR with his DWL team.
— Tim Williams (@timwilliamsP2) October 24, 2012
It should be noted that Kovacevic has a reputation as an instigator and likes to make waves to draw attention to himself, but regardless of which Pirates writer is correct here, the issues with the Pirates tactics still remain.
Engaging in Navy SEALs training has been a growing trend among teams, especially among college teams and in other sports. But there are few examples in professional sports and none in Major League Baseball.
It just seems here that the risks greatly outweigh the rewards. Could these types of experience help develop leaders among their top prospects and build a team concept as they work their way towards the majors? Sure, but so can a pasta dinner and a par-3 golf tournament.
The possibility of injury to valuable assets like Taillon and Gerrit Cole, or any draft pick the team has invested money in, is too much to risk, especially when the more conventional use of time is to focus on improving their baseball abilities.
Sometimes thinking outside the box can lead to inventive new ideas. But sometimes convention is conventional for a reason.