PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Pirates believe they've closed the gap on the teams they're chasing following a 14-win improvement in 2023 fueled by players that should be lineup fixtures for years to come.
Taking the next step from promising to contending, however, will be far trickier. And they know it.
“We have a clear mind about what’s next and that it’s not easy and not supposed to be easy,” general manager Ben Cherington said Tuesday. “We just all need to do our jobs really well.”
Pittsburgh's 76-86 was essentially divided into three parts: the auspicious 20-8 start in which everything that could have gone right went right, a 27-39 swoon through May, June and July followed by a 29-28 finish over the final two months in which rookies like right fielder/catcher Henry Davis, catcher Endy Rodriguez, outfielder Josh Palacios and corner infielder Jared Triolo were regular contributors.
“I’m very encouraged with (August and September) because I think not only are we getting better record-wise, we’re playing better baseball but we’re also and this may sound a little different, we’re getting things out of the way,” manager Derek Shelton said.
Things like the kind of “firsts” — be it hit, start, run or error — can serve as a major psychological hurdle for a team with such a young core. When those players arrive in Bradenton for spring training in February, they won't be consumed with getting to the majors, but staying there and being difference makers.
Third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes solidified his status as one of the best defensive players of his generation and also produced the best offensive season of his young career. Pitcher Mitch Keller and closer David Bednar were All-Stars. Outfielder Bryan Reynolds signed a long-term deal in April, proof of Pittsburgh's increased commitment to investing in players it believes can push them back toward the top of the NL Central.
Still, there are needs that have to be addressed during the offseason, particularly in the rotation and at first base. Cherington stressed the Pirates — who began 2023 with a payroll of just over $71 million, the third-lowest in the majors — would “have the resources we need to get better and to compete and contend.”
While the focus will be on improving internally with several prospects — including 2023 No. 1 overall pick pitcher Paul Skenes — on the horizon to join those who have already made it to Pittsburgh, the Pirates will supplement with free agents, franchise icon Andrew McCutchen among them.
The 36-year-old hit .256 with 12 home runs and 43 RBIs in his homecoming season with the Pirates before partially tearing his left Achilles in September. McCutchen, who was on a one-year deal, has said repeatedly he would prefer to stay in his adopted hometown. The feeling remains mutual.
“Certainly interested in him wearing a Pirates uniform next year,” Cherington said. “That would be a great outcome.”
While Davis, the No. 1 overall pick in 2021, spent most of his time in right field after making his debut in late June, the team still envisions him competing with Rodriguez at catcher in spring training. There are no plans to move shortstop Oneil Cruz, who fractured his left ankle in early April and missed the rest of the season. Cruz will spend some of the offseason at the team's training facility in Florida, with a chance to get into some type of game action — be it simulated or otherwise — a strong possibility.
The Pirates awarded Shelton with a contract extension early in the year and Cherington praised the manager and his staff for creating an environment that is player-centric. There are no plans to make any changes, though there's a chance bench coach Donnie Kelly could find himself interviewing for open MLB managerial jobs in the near future.
The top-to-bottom overhaul Cherington began when he took over in the fall of 2019 is starting to bear fruit at the major-league level. The majority of position spots are filled with homegrown talent. Pittsburgh hung tough down the stretch despite having the youngest roster in the big leagues.
After watching Philadelphia and then Miami clinch playoff berths in person, the Pirates are confident next fall they can be one of the teams dogpiling on the pitcher's mound before popping champagne in the clubhouse.
"We can do it," Keller said. “There have been conversations in the dugout like, ‘Dang, this is a playoff team that we’re playing against, and we’re right there with them, if not better than them.’ ... We’re fully expecting to be (in the playoffs) next year.”
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Will Graves, The Associated Press