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Perrotto: Grapefruit League All About Load Management for Pirates

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Pittsburgh Pirates, Andrew McCutchen

Load management has been a thing in the NBA for a while now, and it has seeped into Major League Baseball.

I have a little story about load management. My wife bought me a cool Christmas present in 2022 — a pair of tickets for a Golden State Warriors-Cavaliers game in Cleveland the following month.

However, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green all sat out for the Warriors that night. Golden State did not want the three stars to play on back-to-back nights after the Warriors and Celtics had gone to overtime in Boston the previous evening.

Load management, Warriors coach Steve Kerr called it.

The term is starting to be used more frequently in baseball. Perhaps general managers and managers think it’s cooler than saying “we’re giving him a day off.”

Load management is always part of the plan in spring training. Very rarely do players get thrust full force into the Grapefruit League season, which begins Saturday for the Pirates when they face the Minnesota Twins in Fort Myers, Fla.

Position players usually start by getting two plate appearances and pitchers almost always pitch only one inning in their first outings of the spring.

Considering the return from injuries by shortstop Oneil Cruz and designated hitter/outfielder Andrew McCutchen are two of the biggest spring training storylines for the Pirates, load management will be an oft-used phrase over the next few weeks.

The Pirates will be extra cautious with both, but especially Cruz, who sustained a season-ending broken left ankle last April.

“What we deal with in games, we’ll probably structure it out a little bit,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “But in terms of restrictions, he’s a full go.”

“Ready, 100%,” Cruz said earlier this week about how his ankle felt.

Encouraging news for sure for the Pirates after they originally hoped Cruz could return to action in mid-August last season. However, he had a series of setbacks during his recovery that caused that plan to be scrapped.

The Pirates may slow play McCutchen even more after his 2023 season ended in early September when he partially tore his left Achilles. At 37, McCutchen is 12 years older than Cruz.

Shelton said the Pirates will also take it slow with McCutchen this spring. However, McCutchen makes it clear that he expects no playing time restrictions once the regular season begins on March 28 when the Pirates play the Marlins in Miami.

“There’s no point in hitting the ground running and trying to rush into things right now,” McCutchen said. “Obviously, like all of us but me more, haven’t played any games since I got injured last season. There’s no point in coming out here and trying to make the team right now. So, I’ll take my team, get the load, and get some consistency just running and doing baseball activities.”

That’s the nature of the baseball exhibition season. The better-known players rarely play full games, especially on the road, all in the name of load management.

At times, Grapefruit Leagues lineups resemble junior varsity teams. They’re kind of like the Warriors’ JV team I saw last year in Cleveland.

At least Grapefruit League tickets aren’t as expensive as NBA tickets.

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