PITTSBURGH -- This weekend's trio of games at PNC Park featured three of the largest, liveliest crowds that have descended upon the North Shore this season. That tends to happen when the Yankees come to town. The environment was akin to the energy, the life and the vibe that defines late-season and postseason baseball.
On Sunday afternoon, Pirates general manager Ben Cherington envisioned more of this brand of September baseball.
During Cherington’s weekly Sunday radio show before the series finale, broadcaster Joe Block noted that Pittsburgh was playing at an 84-win pace (28-26) over its past 54 games. Block then asked Cherington if he’s optimistic that the Pirates can contend next season.
"We're very optimistic in the direction we're going,” Cherington said on 93.7 The Fan prior to the Pirates’ 3-2 win over the Yankees. “We believe that if we do our jobs well enough -- by we, I mean literally all of us, starting with myself down to every member of our staff [and] our players, we all have a job to do to help us get better and get into the position you’re talking about. Not just the position you’re talking about, but frankly, beyond that position. We want to win more than 84 games. That’s what we’re building toward.”
It’s not just the wins that are cause for encouragement; it’s the players who are winning these games.
Pittsburgh’s active roster features a litany of foundational pieces. It's a list that includes Bryan Reynolds, Mitch Keller, David Bednar, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Jack Suwinski, Endy Rodríguez and Henry Davis. That doesn’t even include shortstop Oneil Cruz, recently ruled out for the remainder of the season, or right-hander Paul Skenes, the first overall pick in the 2023 MLB Draft, each of whom stands to potentially contribute next season.
At this time last year, the roster was in a much different shape. On Sept. 17, 2022, the Pirates used 13 players -- 10 position players and three pitchers -- in a 5-1 loss to the Mets. Of those 13, only Cruz, Hayes, Reynolds and Suwinski remain on the 40-man roster.
“We’ve been more competitive, but again, we can’t emphasize this enough: it’s not a time to be satisfied with anything,” Cherington said. “We need to put the gas pedal down and keep getting better. It starts with me, but if we all do that, I’m confident we will keep getting better, and we’re not that far away.”
Added Rodríguez: "We have the talent to compete for the whole year. We’re focusing on the future. Everybody here knows what we have to do to help the team and what we have to do to get better for the next year.”
The Pirates have improved despite, essentially, going this entire season without Cruz, who fractured his left fibula on April 9. It’s impossible to know how this season would’ve unfolded if Cruz played a full season. That said, it’s not outlandish to suggest Pittsburgh would have a few more wins with him playing more than just nine games.
Entering Sunday, Pirates shortstops had posted a .644 OPS with 16 home runs, 10 steals and -0.8 fWAR across 140 games since Cruz went down. As a rookie, by comparison, Cruz had a .744 OPS, 17 home runs, 10 steals and 1.1 fWAR in 87 games. Had he come anywhere close to his goal of a 30-30 or 40-40 season, the Pirates (70-80) might be closer to 75 wins.
“We thought it was possible that that could happen," Cherington said. "We thought some of the changes we were seeing in him in a very small sample early in the season made it seem like it could happen. Then, it just didn’t happen. It took away a real piece of the upside of the team for 2023.
"Not making excuses, it just did. We have that chance again next year.”
The return of Cruz -- as well as JT Brubaker, who underwent season-ending surgery in April -- will help the Pirates take another step forward. They, alone, won’t be enough.
For the Bucs to make the playoffs next season, they’ll need significant improvement among their youth, including Davis, Rodríguez, Roansy Contreras, Luis L. Ortiz, Quinn Priester, Liover Peguero and Nick Gonzales. Cherington added that Pittsburgh will look to supplement its foundation with external pieces via free agency and trades.
“So much of what we’re capable of doing, and believe we can do, in 2024 is going to be driven by the players who are already here continuing improvement -- guys who are on the team now, guys who are in the Minor Leagues, guys who may not be there for Opening Day [in] 2024, but might have a chance to make an impact midway through,” Cherington said.