The Pittsburgh Pirates have been the prime symbol of everything wrong with MLB. They play in perhaps the league’s best ballpark. They have a passionate fanbase that is just screaming for a team worth their time, assuming they haven’t all been chased off (and they may need the Pirates soon given that the Penguins look to be developing chunks in the milk carton). And they have an owner who simply refuses to give them anything. Bob Nutting butchered the one good team from the middle of the last decade and then hasn’t made any attempt to make up for it. He’s taken his revenue-sharing checks, chuckled off to the bank, and that’s it. There is a great story waiting to get out in Pittsburgh, but Nutting will almost certainly never let it happen. There’s no reason that the Pirates can’t do what the Brewers have done for the past five years, other than their owner doesn’t feel like it.
What’s probably more frustrating for the few Bucs fans who can’t let go is that the NL Central could not be a more welcoming place for a team to charge through the standings quickly. The financial big bad in the division, the only one, the Chicago Cubs, refuse to act like it and want to convince their fans they’re actually the Royals. The Reds thought an 83-win team was too expensive. The Brewers are well-run but do have limits on how much they can do and are hamstrung by paying Christian Yelich MVP money when he’s nowhere near an MVP anymore.
The Cardinals will waltz to this division with a team that’s no more than 88- or 89-win team on paper. The Cardinals are trying, but not trying all that hard, and that’s more than enough in this wasteland.
It wouldn’t be too hard for the Pirates to find a way to actually be relevant. But this being Nutting’s team, they have to do it the slow way. And the cheap way. And no Pirates fan is going to grab this team with both hands knowing that as soon as it costs more than a button, Nutting will order their best players traded or allowed to walk. You can’t blame them.
Still, PNC Park is not going to be a place where hope goes to die anymore, at least for a while.
It starts at short, where Oneil Cruz lives, a player who can hit the ball to Scranton and also throw it through his first baseman’s sternum. Cruz had serious strikeout problems in his first season, but he was also 23, still slugged .450, and showed pretty good plate discipline in the minors. There should be a bounce.
On the mound, Mitch Keller is one of the better pitchers you’ve never actually watched. Keller would have been top-10 in ground-ball rate last year if he had pitched three more innings, and his jump in success was greatly due to discovering the new sweeping slider that was all the rage last year. Behind him is Roansy Contreras, a 23-year-old who has very limited innings above single-A, but struck out a third of the hitters he saw in AA and AAA. Contreras also comes with a slider as a serious weapon, as hitters whiffed on 42 percent of them in his 18 starts with the Pirates last year.
There’s more under the surface. Endy Rodriguez, whom the Pirates stole off the Mets from something named Joey Lucchesi, should be on the Opening Day roster as the catcher but is being, well, Pirates’d. Quinn Priester raced through four levels last year in the Pirates system, and unless the Pirates get addicted to watching Rich Hill try and show all 700 people in PNC Park how passionate he is, probably will be in the rotation at some point. Luis Ortiz and Mike Burrows are other names that could pop up to take starts.
In the lineup, Nick Gonzales has an outside shot of joining Cruz in the middle of the infield. Henry Davis, another catching prospect, tore apart A-ball and high-A last year, and will start in Double-A, but should he pop in the same way the Pirates might have to figure out how to move Rodriguez to second or the outfield to accommodate both. Malcom Nunez mashed in Triple-A after coming over from St. Louis in the José Quintana deal, and Ji-Man Choi clearly is meant as just a placeholder for him or anyone else in 2024.
Will the Pirates be good? No. There’s still too much below Pittsburgh in the system and not in Pittsburgh yet. They’ll trade off whatever they can again, so the last two months will probably still be ugly, and no amount of Andrew McCutcheon nostalgia will make up for it.
But 2024 and beyond… maybe? The Reds are lining up a fair amount of exciting young players too. But the Cardinals’ best players are all over 30. The Brewers can only do this dance for so long, with both Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff two years away from free agency. The Cubs are just never going to try to their fullest. It’s all there, and it could come down to whoever wants to actually act like an MLB team between the Pirates and Reds as soon as next year.
PNC Park has some shoots sprouting for once. Which doesn’t mean their fans don’t deserve more, but when robbed of water one will drink the sand.