The Pirates’ success for much of the season has been one of the surprise storylines of the 2023 campaign. Pittsburgh burst out of the gates with a torrid April, capping off that month by winning 11 of 12 games. They’ve since endured losing streaks of seven and eight games (currently active) but also enjoyed a six-game winning streak in what’s been a roller-coaster performance. All told, the Bucs sit at 34-38, with their recent slide and a corresponding 10-game winning streak from the Reds dropping Pittsburgh to four games back in a feeble NL Central division.
That sub-.500 record might sink them in other divisions. They’re right in the mix in the Central, though, and Pirates president Travis Williams made clear in an interview with Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that with the trade deadline approaching, general manager Ben Cherington will have the support of ownership to pursue upgrades that improve the team both in 2023 and beyond.
Pirates fans, in particular, will want to check out the full interview for Williams’ comments on the deadline, the 2023 MLB draft, potential contract extensions and more. By and large, however, Williams stressed that he and owner Bob Nutting will “give [Cherington] the opportunity or the freedom to do what he needs to do” in order to bring about a 2023 postseason berth if the opportunity exists. While the team president went on to say it’d be “silly” to forecast the context of the trade market and the moves his team might make with the Aug. 1 deadline so far down the road, he doubled down that the goal is now to “be a winning team, not only this year but for the long term.”
It’s worth again noting that the Pirates are in the midst of an eight-game freefall in the standings. While they’re currently still easily within arm’s reach of the division, Williams, Nutting and Cherington may well view things differently if the team can’t stop the bleeding and finds itself looking up at a more sizable deficit a month from now. It’s unlikely the Pirates would strike up deals for any rental players if they were eight-plus games out of the postseason chase, for instance. That said, the progress made this year and Williams’ mention of winning beyond the current season would likely still leave the door cracked for the Bucs to add some MLB talent that’s controllable through 2024 and beyond, regardless of the current season’s standings.
As far as potential areas of improvement, the Pirates have any number of avenues to explore. Pittsburgh ranks anywhere from the bottom-third of MLB teams to the middle of the pack club in terms of runs scored (300, 23rd in MLB), home runs, (67, 25th in MLB), rotation ERA (4.34, 16th in MLB) and bullpen ERA (4.41, 24th in MLB). Injuries have taken some of the shine of the team and strained the team’s depth. Shortstop Oneil Cruz underwent ankle surgery on April 10 and isn’t expected back until later this summer. Right-handers JT Brubaker and Vince Velasquez have both undergone season-ending elbow surgery. Relievers Wil Crowe, Jarlin Garcia, Jose Hernandez and Colin Holderman are all on the injured list.
The Bucs appear more set in some areas than others. Bryan Reynolds and Jack Suwinski have locked themselves into outfield spots with strong performances, and Andrew McCutchen is having a resurgent year between designated hitter and right field. The recent promotion of top prospect Henry Davis gives the Pirates three catching options and also puts Davis in position to solidify right field for the time being. Ke’Bryan Hayes isn’t hitting as well as hoped at third base, but his elite defense will keep him in the lineup regularly. Infielders Ji Hwan Bae, Tucupita Marcano and Carlos Santana have all struggled to varying extents with the bat, while utilityman Rodolfo Castro has hit fairly well but with shaky glovework.
In the rotation, Mitch Keller has enjoyed a long-awaited breakout — recent slump notwithstanding — while Johan Oviedo and veteran Rich Hill have provided nearly identical 4.30 and 4.31 ERAs, respectively, in a combined 29 starts. Top prospect Quinn Priester could get a look before too long, but the Pirates could certainly use some additional help on this front. In the bullpen, David Bednar has been his typically excellent self. Dauri Moreta and the currently injured Hernandez and Holderman have both filled key roles, too, but it’s been a top-heavy group that’s rotated more than a dozen relievers through the final few spots in the ’pen.
There’s still just under six weeks until the actual trade deadline, and as the recent streaks in both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati illustrate, the standings can change in only a fraction of that time. Still, it’s encouraging for Pirates fans to hear leadership discussing a buyer’s mentality this late into the season. If the Bucs can right the ship and remain in contention, they’ll be looking to add at the trade deadline for the first time since 2018.