The Pirates last reached the playoffs in 2015 and haven’t had a winning season since 2018, as the team embarked on a long rebuild process that might be slowly approaching the end. Through a lengthy downturn in the middle of the season sunk Pittsburgh’s chances in 2023, the team played well at both the very start and very end of the year to deliver a 76-86 record — the Bucs’ highest win total since their 82 wins in 2018. The Pirates also avoided the NL Central basement for the second consecutive year, as the Cardinals surprisingly tumbled to last place.
On paper, the Buccos still seem a few pieces away from at least a couple of division rivals, and in the National League as a whole when it comes to a push for a wild card spot. However, given the lack of certainty within the division and some of the young talent on Pittsburgh’s roster, it wouldn’t be the biggest shock if the Pirates are closer than we might think to being legitimate contenders in 2024.
This is the view of Pirates owner Bob Nutting, who told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey that he was “very enthusiastic to see another step forward” for his team.
“I’m not gonna pick a number of games or wins, but for the first time in what feels like a decade and maybe on the calendar is 6-7 years, we’re within striking distance of a good team. We’re short of that still, but the progression is clearly going in the right direction. My expectation is we take another meaningful step forward [in 2024]. With the current playoff system, another step forward means we can be in contention throughout the season. That’s a minimum expectation we should have and one we should be building on.”
Bryan Reynolds, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Jack Suwinski, Mitch Keller, and David Bednar have become building blocks, while such former top prospects as Oneil Cruz and Henry Davis are viewed as cornerstone players once they receive more seasoning at the Major League level. Losing another key prospect in Endy Rodriguez for all of 2024 is a blow, yet some other top minor leaguers might soon be emerging as the next wave of talent, including 2023 first overall draft pick Paul Skenes if he continues his rapid rise up the ladder.
Andrew McCutchen was re-signed as the veteran leader and face of the franchise, and the Pirates have looked to add more experience by acquiring the likes of Rowdy Tellez, Marco Gonzales, and Martin Perez. The latter two in particular are needed additions to a thin pitching staff that got even thinner this offseason when Johan Oviedo was lost to Tommy John surgery.
The reinforcements aren’t exactly rock-solid, given how Tellez, Gonzales, and Perez were all either ineffective or injured during the 2023 season. In fact, in adding this group of veterans but losing Oviedo and Rodriguez, it can be argued that the Pirates haven’t really much advanced their talent level, considering that McCutchen was already on the team last season.
Nutting is “very pleased with what Ben’s getting done” to date, one of a few instances where Nutting praised the work of GM Ben Cherington. That said, Nutting also noted that “I wish we were further along in this offseason than we are. I’ve seen how hard Ben has pushed. I’ve seen how close we’ve gotten to some deals. But we’re only halfway through. I think there’s still time. There’s still a lot of work to be done. I think Ben understands the expectations.”
Of course, Pittsburgh fans might certainly observe that Cherington could do more to restock the roster if he had more financial support. Since Nutting bought the team in 2007, the Bucs have regularly been at or near the bottom of the league when it comes to payroll, and have only once (in 2016) finished as high as 20th in Opening Day payroll. Cherington said in December that the Pirates were going to raise their spending level from 2023 to 2024, and Nutting reiterated to Mackey that Cherington “has room to make moves that we need to make,” even if the owner didn’t specify any exact dollar figure.
In modest fashion, the Pirates are on pace to indeed surpass last year’s spending levels, considering that most moves still need to be made to upgrade the roster. Pittsburgh had a $73.27MM Opening Day payroll in 2023 and Roster Resource projects their current 2024 payroll at around $69.2MM, so one more significant signing could alone put the Pirates well over last year’s mark.
Considering how the Pirates have been linked to such names as Shota Imanaga, Yariel Rodriguez, and Jack Flaherty, the Bucs seem to be willing to stretch the budget a bit further than usual to make a somewhat bigger-ticket expenditure. It can be assumed that the Pirates won’t yet break the bank for a Jordan Montgomery or Blake Snell, but such second-tier names as Mike Clevinger, Hyun Jin Ryu, James Paxton, and other remain on the open market. Several more options exist in possible trades, though Nutting seemed to caution against the idea that Pittsburgh would deal significant prospects at this point in their rebuild.
“We need to make the team better now and make sure that we’re not mortgaging the future going forward, [and] that we’re not making decisions where we’re giving up so much talent in a trade that we end up watching former pitchers thrive elsewhere,” Nutting said.