Encouraging '23 season gives Pirates belief that window is opening

October 1st, 2023

PITTSBURGH -- Of the 162 games that the Pirates played this season -- 76 resulting in wins, 86 resulting in losses -- there are two games that will reside in the club’s collective consciousness throughout the fall and winter.

On Tuesday, the Phillies clinched a spot in the playoffs with a win over the Pirates at Citizens Bank Park. They rushed the field. They popped bottles. They celebrated success. 

On Saturday, the Marlins clinched a spot in the playoffs with a win over the Pirates at PNC Park. They rushed the field. They popped bottles. They celebrated success.

These losses didn’t affect the trajectory of the Pirates’ season in any meaningful way; that didn’t make either defeat any more palatable. They served as a reminder of what the Bucs were not. They also served as a reminder of what Pittsburgh believes it can be. 

“We got significantly better by winning more games. We’re still not where we want to be,” manager Derek Shelton said following a 3-0 win on Sunday afternoon at PNC Park. “A lot of the messaging [to the team] was, ‘Every single time you work out this winter, every single time you take ground balls or you hit or you lift or when you’re getting up to do something, think about the fact that we watched two teams celebrate and that’s where we want to be.’”

There’s a belief in the Pirates’ clubhouse that come this time next year, they’ll be the ones celebrating, and that they’ll have an opportunity to win this franchise’s first title since 1979. To do so, they’ll need another sizable jump in the win column. 

In 2022, the Pirates had 62 wins. In 2023, they won 76. In '24, they’ll need something in the range of 86 wins to make the playoffs. Leaping from 76 wins to 86 wins, however, is a different ballgame than leaping from 62 wins to 76 wins. 

“The work that it takes to go from where we were last year to this year … is important and not easy. I would say that the next step will be harder. It doesn’t get easier,” general manager Ben Cherington said on 93.7 The Fan. “It gets harder as you get more competitive and get closer to where we want to be, which is one of those teams getting ready to play in October.”

This season can be divided into three parts, the first two of which operated on the extremes. There was April, when the Pirates began 20-9. There was the rest of the first half, when they went 21-40. The truest reflection of this team, though, lay in the second half, when the Bucs went 35-37.

The Pirates’ collective encouragement doesn’t solely lie in their record over the last two-and-a-half months, but in the opponents they played and the environments they navigated. In September, six of their nine series were against teams in the playoff hunt. Their last 12 games, specifically, were against the Cubs, Reds, Phillies and Marlins. 

That improvement was the product of Mitch Keller, David Bednar, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Jack Suwinski and Johan Oviedo putting together the best seasons of their careers. Bryan Reynolds had another season of 20 or more homers and an OPS around .800. The return of Andrew McCutchen, who orchestrated his best offensive season in several years, didn’t hurt.

That improvement was the product of the Pirates’ promoting several of their top prospects, a list that includes catchers Endy Rodríguez and Henry Davis; right-handers Luis L. Ortiz, Carmen Mlodzinski and Quinn Priester; and infielders Jared Triolo, Liover Peguero and Nick Gonzales. That group of 20-somethings had their struggles, but Pittsburgh’s postseason aspirations largely hinge on that core taking a step forward.

That improvement occurred, essentially, without Oneil Cruz, who missed all but nine games due to a fractured left fibula. Come March 28, 2024, Cruz should be roaming shortstop once again. 

“We know we can be in the playoffs,” Hayes said. “We know we have the guys to do it. We're one little notch away. We showed what we can do the first month in the season. I know guys are looking forward to next year. We already started talking about it, even though we were out of it. … We're going to be there next year."

Pittsburgh will need more than sustained production from its core and improvement from its youth to play fall ball next year, though that will certainly be a big part of the equation. The Pirates will need external additions, too. Per Cherington, the team will “exhaust every avenue.”

In addition to bringing players to Pittsburgh, there’s also the matter of keeping players with the Bucs. Keller, fresh off his first All-Star selection, will be entering his second year of arbitration, but he and the Pirates can bypass altogether by agreeing to an extension. Keller, for his part, is ready and willing to lay down roots. 

“I would love to play here [long-term],” Keller said. “We have Reynolds and Ke’ locked up. Hopefully we can get Cruz [signed long-term]. We have all these different pieces that we can add. I would love to be part of it and be here for however many years. I think we have a really good window here to really do something special.”

The window for contention in Pittsburgh is, indeed, slowly beginning to open. The next year will tell if the Pirates, as Keller says it, inch any closer to doing something special.