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Perrotto: Derek Shelton Turns Up The Heat — Perhaps on Himself

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Derek Shelton, Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pittsburgh Pirates walked out of PNC Park last Oct. 1 feeling pretty good about themselves.

The Pirates went 18-13 in their last 31 games, beating the playoff-bound Miami Marlins in the season finale. The Pirates also had a hand in knocking two National League Central rivals – the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds – out of playoff contention.

The solid finish enabled the Pirates to end the season with a 76-86 record. While 10 games under .500 isn’t a great feat, the Pirates won 14 more games than in 2022 and escaped last place in the NL Central for the first time since 2018.

However, the Pirates say they don’t want to stop at just returning to respectability. They plan on being contenders in 2024.

So said manager Derek Shelton last Saturday during an ask Pirates management session at PiratesFest.

“Our goal is to play playoff games in October, whether that’s winning the Central — which is definitely the goal — or being a playoff-caliber team, that’s something we are striving for,” Shelton said. “I will be very clear in our first message (during spring training) in Bradenton in about a month that we should be thinking about that every day. I guarantee that every member of our staff and every player will have that goal on their mind going into the ‘24 season.”

It’s a good goal and a simple one. One of the very basic tenets of competitive athletics is trying to win – even if the penny-pinching Pirates seem to operate their business otherwise most of the time.

However, it is fair to question whether reaching the postseason this year is a realistic goal.

Despite adding veteran left-handers Marco Gonzales and Martin Perez to the rotation this winter, the Pirates are short on starting pitchers. Right-hander Mitch Keller is the only other reliable starter on the roster.

The Pirates need at least one more veteran in the rotation. They also need a young pitcher such as Roansy Contreras, Luis Ortiz or Quinn Priester to take a step forward.

The Pirates have a question mark at the other end of the battery as Henry Davis is the presumptive No. 1 catcher. He made his major-league debut last season and played in 62 games. However, the Pirates were so leery of Davis’ defense that he made just two one-inning appearances at catcher in blowout losses.

The competition for the starting second baseman’s job will include all players who have yet to fully establish themselves in the major leagues. The Pirates could also use a power-hitting right fielder and must find out whether new first baseman Rowdy Tellez is more the guy who hit 35 home runs for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2022 than the one who went deep just 13 times in an injury-marred 2023.

While the return of shortstop Oneil Cruz could provide a big boost, no one knows for sure what long-term effects might result from the broken ankle he sustained last April.

When asked about his expectations for 2024 at PiratesFest, general manager Ben Cherington was more measured than Shelton.

“I believe we are getting close,” Cherington said. “Typically, there’s going to be steps you take as a team. We took a step last year. We’re working really hard to take another step in 2024. If we do, then we start to get into that territory. We’re not that far away.

“If you get into that tournament in October, a lot can happen.”

The Pirates haven’t won a division title since 1992. Of course, they haven’t had many good teams since then.

However, even when the Pirates were good and made the postseason three years in a row from 2013-15, they didn’t finish in first place.

Shelton setting the Pirates’ goal of winning the NL Central this upcoming season is admirable. Yet considering he is going into his fifth season as manager, Shelton might have unwittingly turned the heat up on himself if the Pirates don’t contend.

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