3 key storylines to watch as Pirates enter camp

February 14th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Alex Stumpf's Pirates Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

BRADENTON, Fla. -- There’s something about pitchers and catchers reporting that makes a frigid mid-February morning in Pittsburgh just a little warmer.

Pirates batterymates will hold their first workout Wednesday in what will be a pivotal season. Players have been vocal this offseason about wanting to take the next step to being contenders, and that journey starts with Pirate City and Spring Training. As the season gets underway, here are three key storylines for the Bucs to follow this spring.

: Catcher

The Pirates went into the offseason making it clear that Davis was going to get a chance to catch in 2024. With Endy Rodríguez out for all of 2024 recovering from right elbow surgery following a winter ball injury, that opens the door for Davis to potentially be a starter.

The team is adding Yasmani Grandal to bring a more veteran voice to the catcher room, and he also provides a bit of insurance. Davis has the highest offensive upside of the catchers, but there are questions as to whether he can handle the position at the Major League level. Pitch framing is important to the Pirates, and their worst case scenario is falling back to Grandal and Jason Delay, both of whom ranked in the top 20 in catcher framing runs last with four apiece, according to Baseball Savant. If nothing else, it would help the pitching staff.

But the Pirates ranked 28th in MLB last year with a .580 OPS from their catchers. A Davis breakout would go a long way towards rectifying that. Obviously there are more ways to evaluate a catcher’s value than just their offensive production and receiving skills, but if Davis shows he can handle both of those areas in particular, it would be a major boost.

’s return

Last year, Cruz went into Spring Training with a goal of hitting 30 home runs and stealing 30 bases in his first full Major League season. He certainly has the tools to be able to do something like that, but a collision at home plate ended his season after just nine games.

The first thing to watch with Cruz is how he looks defensively. There were concerns about his defense at shortstop before the injury, but he seemed to take a step forward in his brief look in 2023. The Pirates heavily monitored his work in the Dominican Republic, and they remain optimistic he can play the position.

That leaves the offense. Pittsburgh didn’t have a true backup for Cruz and rotated different players at shortstop throughout the season. He isn’t the type of player one can really replace, though. Cruz brings a combination of power and speed that can change games and break Statcast. It could take just one Spring Training swing for him to reintroduce himself to the baseball world.

Competition, competition, competition

Spring Training competitions are hardly new for this team, but they are coming into camp with a younger roster and more Major League-ready players than they have in the recent past. A positional battle between two prospects is far more intriguing than two veterans on short-term deals.

Liover Peguero and Nick Gonzales were two of the team’s top prospects going into last year, and they will enter Spring Training as the two most likely options for the second base job. One can’t neglect Jared Triolo, Ji Hwan Bae or Alika Williams as contenders too, but their defensive versatility may be better used elsewhere.

At the moment, the only sure bets for the rotation are Mitch Keller, Marco Gonzales and Martín Pérez. The team could still add another arm, but if the Bucs don’t, the focus is going to be on Roansy Contreras, Luis Ortiz, Quinn Priester and Bailey Falter. Those are the most likely internal options for Opening Day, but it’s worth keeping an eye on Nos. 1 and 3 prospects (per MLB Pipeline) Paul Skenes and Jared Jones to see how close they are to being ready for the Majors.

There’s also outfield playing time to be won. It could be a fallback in case Davis doesn’t click behind the plate, but Connor Joe, Joshua Palacios, Bae and Triolo all showed something last season, and newcomer Edward Olivares had an .857 OPS against left-handers last year.

Mix in Davis and Grandal fighting for time behind the plate plus the usually expected bullpen and bench jobs up for grabs, and there should be some interesting competitions that run through the Grapefruit League season.