Youthful Pirates see progress ahead in '23

March 27th, 2023

At the end of 2022, general manager Ben Cherington expressed optimism that the Pirates were on the verge of improving. Now, following an offseason in which the Bucs supplemented their youth with established veterans, the club stands to take a step forward this season.

The Pirates boast more depth at just about every position group than they did at this time last season, both at the Major League and Minor League level. By the summer, the next wave of top prospects -- such as Endy Rodriguez, Henry Davis, Quinn Priester and Mike Burrows -- could join the burgeoning young core as well. Coming off back-to-back 100-loss seasons, the Bucs are poised to move into a better position this year.

“We opened Spring Training believing that we had improved depth across the team relative to the last couple years,” Cherington said. “We still believe that. I think as we look at Opening Day and the roster that we’d anticipate having in Pittsburgh and also [Indianapolis], [we] really believe that that competition will continue into this season. We’re going to have guys starting in Indy who are going to be disappointed to be there. Those will be tough conversations.”

What needs to go right?
For the Pirates, success won’t be measured strictly in the wins and losses, but also in the progress that their young players make. That list includes , , , and , among others. Some of the team’s blue-chip prospects -- such as Rodriguez, Davis, Priester and Burrows -- are on track to move up to the big leagues as well. The Bucs might not make the playoffs this season, but if their young core can take a step forward and several prospects can make their debut, 2023 will qualify as a success.

Great unknown
The Pirates’ great unknown is simple: Will they trade ? The All-Star outfield requested a trade prior to the Winter Meetings, and while Reynolds will, in all likelihood, suit up for Pittsburgh on Opening Day, his future with the organization is nebulous. Reynolds and Cherington said on Friday that there is nothing new to report on his status with the organization. Reynolds said if the two sides were to agree to an extension, he would want it done before Opening Day. The Bucs, of course, do not have to trade Reynolds, as he is under team control for three more years, but it seems likely that this saga will end with either an extension or a trade. 

Team MVP will be ... Cruz
In 87 games last season, Cruz hit 17 home runs and stole 10 bases. That puts him on pace for about 32 home runs and 19 steals across a full season. The Pirates would gladly take that from Cruz, but the Statcast superstar wants to make history -- he wants to go 30-30, if not 40-40. It’s a lofty goal, but with a one-of-one player like Cruz, it feels well within the realm of possibility. Even if Cruz doesn’t hit those benchmarks, there’s reason to believe he can take a step forward next season. Cruz performed well down the stretch, hitting .249/.325/.478 with a 123 wRC+ from Aug. 1 through the end of the season.

Team Cy Young will be ... Keller
After struggling to find his footing in the first few seasons of his career (and even the first few months of 2022), Keller finally put all the pieces of the puzzle together last season. He posted career bests in innings (159), strikeouts (138), ERA (3.91) and FIP (3.88), a performance that earned the right-hander the Steve Blass Award as the team’s best pitcher. He came into his own in the second half of the season, posting a 3.09 ERA. With a cutter and gyro slider in his repertoire, the Pirates’ Opening Day starter could very well take home the title of best pitcher for a second straight year.

Bold prediction
As mentioned above, Cruz wants to make history. There have only been four players in the history of Major League Baseball to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a single season: Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Jose Canseco and Alfonso Soriano. Cruz wants to join this exclusive club. He will need to utilize every ounce of his awesome power and blazing speed to even come close to accomplishing this goal, but if the 24-year-old can build on last year’s success, history might just be within the realm of possibility.