Look out, baseball world, the Pittsburgh Pirates are looking to improve in 2024 and maybe even make a playoff run. OK, so maybe the Texas Rangers aren’t exactly quaking in their spikes over that prospect. However, the 2023 Pirates improved remarkably by 14 games compared to 2022, finishing at 76-86. After the torrid 20-8 start to the season, they sank to 47-58 at the end of July. Trades were made, opportunities were given to youngsters who will be counted on for the future and the team’s record was 29-28 from that point on.
Addressing the media after the end of the season, general manager Ben Cherington stated, “We wanted to get better. We did. Certainly not satisfied. We have more improvement we need to make across the board.”
Which team impacted the National League wild card race more than the Pirates? In the final two road series of the year, the Pirates took two of three from the Cubs and the Reds, coming back from a 9-0 deficit in one of those wins in Cincinnati. However, they also watched the Phillies and the Marlins celebrate clinching playoff spots. Observed Pirates closer David Bednar after watching the Marlins celebrate in PNC Park, “It’s something that that’s where we want to be and the position that we want to be in.” Meanwhile, on his final radio show of 2023, Cherington cautioned, “The next step will be harder. It won’t be easier.”
With this in mind, and with apologies to David Letterman, let’s look at the top 10 questions facing the Pirates for 2024.
Does Andrew McCutchen return?
Let’s start with an easy one. Yes, McCutchen will be back. He doesn’t want to play anywhere else but Pittsburgh. Owner Bob Nutting, Cherington and manager Derek Shelton all want him back. “Cutch” was one of the Pirates’ better hitters in 2023, finishing .256/.378/.397, 12 HR and 43 RBIs in 112 games. There’s no reason he won’t be back.
Does Paul Skenes go north?
Now on to more difficult questions. Skenes, the much-heralded overall number one draft pick in 2023, had a 1.69 ERA, .750 WHIP and 209 strikeouts in 122-and-two-thirds innings pitching for Louisiana State University as a senior. Observers say he could get major-league hitters out right now. If he’s ready, the top of the rotation would look mighty strong with Skenes and All-Star Mitch Keller.
Does Skenes make the team out of spring training? Or does he begin the season in the minors to get more experience against professional hitters (or, as the more cynical may theorize, to manipulate his service time)? Bringing him north would send a strong message to the major-league roster and the fans that the Pirates are putting their best foot forward to become contenders in 2024. On the other hand, the Pirates under Cherington have proceeded cautiously when advancing prospects, preferring to err on the side of keeping them in the minors too long as opposed to not long enough. The guess here is Skenes begins the season in the minors. He’ll be in Pittsburgh by June.
Will the real Roansy Contreras please stand up?
Who is the real Contreras? The 2022 version who looked to have all the makings of a future staff ace? Or the 2023 version who had a 6.59 ERA and 1.566 WHIP for the Pirates and had to be returned to the minors? Discussing the progress of young pitchers, Cherington said, “It’s almost never a straight line.” Clearly, the Pirates are still holding out hope for Contreras, but they shouldn’t count on him either. A return to form by Contreras would go a long way to solving the Pirates’ pitching problems.
Which free agent pitcher is signed?
And make no mistake, the Pirates have pitching problems. With the trade of the ineffective Rich Hill, the struggles of Contreras and injuries to Vince Velasquez and JT Brubaker, for the final two months of the season it seemed the “rotation” was Keller and Johan Oviedo followed by three bullpen games. That doesn’t quite have the same ring as “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.” For the most part, the bullpen games were effective and contributed to the better record after July. But let’s face it, no team would resort to a bullpen game if it had good starters.
Help will probably have to come externally. Cherington hinted he may go beyond the veteran/innings-eater/mentor/fourth-starter type he has acquired in the past, saying, “It’s a different point in time. I think that means we can be open to maybe a different type of target.” That may mean trading prospects for veterans, the opposite of what Pirates fans have become accustomed to, and maybe even going big for a free agent. If Cherington is serious about that and wants my opinion, I think left-handed Blake Snell would be a fine target.
Who’s on first?
Since trading Carlos Santana and Ji Man Choi at the deadline, the first base situation remains clear as mud. Alfonso Rivas, acquired from the Padres in the Choi deal, fielded well … and that was about it. He was clearly acquired as a place holder for 2023 and was recently lost on waivers. Farmhand Mason Martin, once thought to be the first baseman of the future, is seldom mentioned any more. It seems Malcom Nunez is being groomed for the spot, but injuries limited him to just 78 games in the minors in 2023. Nunez hit just .249/.338/.379 combined at four minor-levels last season. He likely needs another season before we see him in the majors.
Connor Joe and Jared Triolo saw time at first last season, and despite being good hitters, they lack the kind of power the position demands. The Pirates’ 2024 first baseman will likely come via the free agent route. Santana has said he would welcome a return to Pittsburgh. Fans would like to see the Pirates shoot higher than that. However, if the Bucs splurge for a top-tier pitcher, it’s hard to imagine them writing a big check for a first baseman as well, and they may not need to. In that case, I think Santana, Brandon Belt or Joey Votto may be a good fit for one year.
Is Oneil Cruz a shortstop?
The Pirates have a budding superstar in Cruz. The exit velocity off his bat and the speed of his throws blew up Statcast seemingly on a nightly basis in 2022. He may have more raw five-tool talent than any Pirate since Dave Parker. But a six-foot-seven-inch shortstop is an anomaly, to say the least. For 2022, the only season where Cruz saw significant major-league action, FanGraphs has him at minus nine Outs Above Average, minus seven Runs Above Average and a minus 7.5 Ultimate Zone Rating. Poor ratings, to say the least.
In his absence in 2023, the Pirates tried seven others at shortstop. In the end, they settled on Liover Peguero and Alika Williams as the best options there. Although his bat eventually fizzled out, Peguero showed promise and surprising pop with seven homers in 59 games. Williams is more a classic “good-field-no-hit” shortstop. Both would seem to have at least earned a good look at shortstop in the spring. Certainly a shortstop with Cruz’s tools on offense is an asset few teams have. But at what cost on defense? I would think there’s at least some consideration behind the scenes to moving him to the outfield. Imagine his speed and strong arm in center field.
Consider, too, the Pirates’ desire to lock up their core players on long-term contracts. Cruz is on record saying he wants to be a shortstop. It’s unlikely he’d consider a long-term deal if he’s not. My guess is he plays shortstop in 2024 and beyond, as the Pirates hope his natural athleticism translates in the field.
Who’s on second?
This leads us to the next question. The Pirates tried eight second basemen in 2023. There wasn’t a consistent regular there. Ji Hwan Bae played the most innings at second with 465. The Pirates’ 2024 second baseman will come internally after we see who’s still standing after a spring training competition.
The Pirates have a glut of prospects for the middle infield. I see the leaders in the second base competition as Triolo and Peguero. Bae and former number-one draft pick Nick Gonzales may have played their way out of the competition in 2022 and will need torrid springs to put themselves back on the radar. Others have been weeded out. That process started with the trade of Rodolfo Castro at the deadline. Additionally, Tucupita Marcano has gone back to the San Diego Padres via a waiver claim.
Where does Henry Davis fit?
Davis, another former number-one draft pick, was drafted as a catcher. When he joined the Pirates last year, Endy Rodriguez, another top prospect, became the regular catcher, while Davis saw action in right field. The Pirates pledged to use both as catchers, but Davis was behind the plate for only two rather meaningless innings. It’s clear the Pirates view Rodriguez as their catcher of the future.
Davis showed a strong arm in right field but otherwise looked uncomfortable there. This is not to say he can’t become an outfielder. But if McCutchen is healthy enough to play the field, Davis might be the primary designated hitter. Somehow, Shelton must get him in the lineup every day.
Is there room for three catchers?
In this modern era of eight-man bullpens and short benches, it’s tough to carry three catchers on the roster. However, it can be done if one or more catchers play other positions. In the minors, Rodriguez has been used in the outfield and on the right side of the infield. With Davis also being groomed in the outfield, the Pirates could have room for a third catcher.
Why is this even an issue? Because when Keller started to blossom in 2023, he did it with Jason Delay as his personal catcher. Whether that was Shelton’s decision or at Keller’s request is unknown. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the concept of the personal catcher. They always seem to be guys who, to use another of my dad’s favorite expressions, couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat. I have a hard time believing, say, Steve Carlton would have been a lousy pitcher without Tim McCarver. But what I think won’t matter. Clearly, Shelton believes there was some magic there when Keller teamed up with Delay. Whether Shelton keeps that going at the expense of a roster spot will be interesting to see.
Who’s the odd man out in the outfield?
The Pirates will enter 2024 with an abundance of outfield depth. Bryan Reynolds, Jack Suwinski, McCutchen and Davis are established as regulars. Connor Joe contributed enough in 2023 to make one believe his spot is secure. Bae was inserted into center field as a defensive replacement to protect leads. It’s plain Shelton considers him his best center fielder. Where does this leave Joshua Palacios? He produced a few big hits last season and excelled as a pinch hitter but there may not be room for him, especially if Delay makes the team. Somehow, some way, Palacios and his infectious energy need to go north in 2024. It will interesting see if and how the Pirates brain trust makes that happen.