PITTSBURGH (AP) — Joe Musgrove is ready for opening day. Gregory Polanco and Keone Kela are decidedly not.
Pittsburgh Pirates first-year manager Derek Shelton announced Friday that Musgrove will be the starter when the Pirates begin the truncated 2020 season in St. Louis on July 24 while Kela and Polanco will likely not be available due to health issues.
Kela, slated to be the team’s closer, was placed on the injured list on Friday for an undisclosed reason while Polanco is out indefinitely after testing positive for COVID-19. Polanco, the starting right field who hasn’t practiced since Monday, gave the team permission to release his name. Shelton said the 28-year-old, who is the longest-tenured player on the roster, is doing well.
“He protected his teammates because he put himself in a conversation where he let us know through the protocols and the testing,” Shelton said. “He was not around anybody else. And because of that, with getting a test and finding out that that he was positive, I think it speaks to the testament of everything that we’ve talked about of how good a teammate he is.”
While Shelton didn’t rule Polanco out for the opener, the right fielder must test negative for the novel coronavirus twice then undergo a heart test and a physical before being cleared to return to the field to practice, let alone play in a game. Polanco entered the year upbeat he’d put his injury scarred 2019 season in the rearview mirror. The positive test blunts his momentum and will force Shelton to get creative in the outfield. Guillermo Heredia figures to get the first crack at filling in for Polanco but after that things start to get blurry.
It’s much the same on the back end of the bullpen. Kela was set to return to the closer’s role he held in Texas in the first half of 2018, when he recorded 24 saves before being sent to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline. Now the job will likely be spread between Kyle Crick, Nick Burdi and Richard Rodriguez among others.
One place that isn’t a question mark for the Pirates is at the top of the rotation. With ace Jameson Taillon already out for the season while recovering from Tommy John surgery and Chris Archer also shut down, Musgrove was an easy choice to take the ball against the Cardinals.
The 27-year-old, acquired in a January 2018 trade that sent Gerrit Cole to Houston, has embraced his role as a leader for a largely anonymous rotation. He went 11-12 with a 4.44 ERA in 2019 and has become a leader for a group that could use one. He advocated the use of masks when summer camp opened and has aggressively embraced new pitching coach Oscar Marin’s use of analytics.
While admitting he was smiling underneath his mask when Shelton told him the news, Musgrove also understands the circumstances are less than ideal with the league banning fans as it attempts to put together some version of a season amid a pandemic.
“It is going to be a pretty dull, boring opening day, but it is opening day nonetheless and really honored to get it and I’m proud of myself and I put in a lot of work to get to this point,” said Musgrove, who will also start an exhibition against Cleveland on Saturday night. “If I’m on other teams, I might not be the opening day guy but I’m here right now. This is the reality of it and I’m ready to take the role.”
Though Musgrove believes the Pirates can be competitive without Kela and perhaps Polanco in the short term, their loss will be felt in more ways than just on-field production.
“It’s definitely a bummer to lose not only two big players on our team but two big voices in the clubhouse, two big personalities that definitely bring out a lot of good in other people,” Musgrove said.
Yet it’s part of the new world the Pirates and the other MLB teams will face in the coming months.
“Yeah, it’s tough, man,” Musgrove said. “Everybody expected to lose one or two guys … I think we did a really good job of only losing what we lost.”