Where do the Pirates go after up-and-down first half?

July 12th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Justice delos Santos’ Pirates Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

There is a plethora of adjectives that can be used to describe the Pirates’ first half. Boring isn’t one of them.

There was a 20-9 start followed by a 21-40 skid. There was Andrew McCutchen getting his 2,000th career hit and Henry Davis making his Major League debut. There was Mitch Keller making his first All-Star team and David Bednar making it for the second year in a row. And, if you include the All-Star break, there was the Pirates selecting LSU pitcher Paul Skenes with the first overall pick.

The second half will have its own headlines. Oneil Cruz is on track to return from his fractured fibula. The Trade Deadline will provide some roster shuffling. Before all of that, let’s review the half:

What we've learned: They’ve taken a step forward, but still have steps to take

The Pirates are on pace to have a better record than last season, albeit marginally, and are doing so despite a litany of injuries, both extended and season-ending.

In recent weeks, they’ve called up prospects Davis, Nick Gonzales and Jared Triolo. Endy Rodríguez and Quinn Priester might not be far away from making their debuts, too. That said, the Pirates aren’t quite ready for postseason contention.

Key player: Keller

Keller enjoyed a career year last season, and the question coming into this season was whether he could take another step forward. At the All-Star break, that answer is a resounding yes. Keller is on pace for career-bests all across the board, and after headlining the Pirates’ rotation for the last three and a half months, he was rewarded with the first All-Star selection of his career.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Sell

At the end of April, the Pirates were on pace to become buyers at the Trade Deadline for the first time in several years. Given how the last 2 1/2 months have gone, the Pirates might be best-served to employ a familiar strategy: trade the team’s veterans on expiring contracts.

That list includes Rich Hill, Carlos Santana and Austin Hedges. McCutchen has been included in trade rumors as well, but he emphasized his desire to remain in Pittsburgh.

Prospect to Watch: RHP Jared Jones (No. 10 for Pirates)

There’s a strong likelihood the Pirates will promote right-hander Priester, the No. 4 prospect in their organization, sometime during the second half, but Jones’ short-term future is more up in the air. Jones earned a promotion from Double-A Altoona to Triple-A Indianapolis in mid-June, and although he’s initially struggled at the higher level (5.12 ERA), he finished the first half with four innings of one-run ball with seven strikeouts.

The Pirates’ starting depth has taken a hit, losing JT Brubaker, Vince Velasquez and Mike Burrows, the organization's No. 9 prospect, to season-ending injuries. If Jones can string together a run of good starts, it’s possible he will reach Pittsburgh before the end of the season.

Pirates' Draft headlined by pitching

As mentioned above, the Pirates elected to take Skenes, the right-hander out of LSU who has been dubbed a generational talent, with the first overall pick in the 2023 MLB Draft. There were rumblings that the Pirates would take someone not named Paul Skenes or Dylan Crews, but in the end, Pittsburgh didn’t get cute with its selection and rolled with arguably the best collegiate pitcher in more than a decade.

“In getting to know Paul, what you understand is that, from his background, you would anticipate discipline and work ethic and a service-oriented teammate -- all those things you sort of anticipate,” general manager Ben Cherington said. “But what you also learn about Paul, as you get to know him, is that he’s got this thirst for getting better. [He’s] not only willing, but wants to take on the challenge, whether that was going to Air Force Academy out of high school or transferring to the [Southeast Conference] for his Draft year. Whatever’s next, he’s going to want it.”

Skenes is far from the only pitcher who will be joining the organization. Of the 21 selections the Pirates made, 14 were pitchers. On Day 2, in particular, the Pirates used seven of their eight selections on pitchers. Of those 14 selections, only one, right-hander Zander Meuth, wasn’t a collegiate pitcher.

The appeal of most of the pitchers the Pirates selected doesn’t reside in the surface-level statistics. Most of the pitchers Pittsburgh picked had career collegiate ERAs that begin with fours, fives or even sixes. What the Pirates are betting on is projectability, tools and traits the organization values.

“We had a chance to spend a lot of time with these players at the field, around the field, off the field, getting to learn who they are and what they’ve been exposed to, what the upside is in different places," senior director of amateur scouting Joe DelliCarri said after Day 2. "We believe this collection definitely has some unique opportunities in some different areas to take advantage of growth and big gaps in growth that we think we can tap into with our coaches and player development."

On the flip side of going heavy on pitching, the Pirates didn't select a primary outfielder. The only other time this millennium that Pittsburgh hasn't selected an outfielder was the abbreviated 2020 Draft, which was only five rounds. DelliCarri said the team didn't intentionally avoid outfielders, adding that some of the infielders the organization selected could play outfield as a secondary or tertiary position.