The Pittsburgh Pirates watched from the opposing dugout with a little bit of envy twice during the final week of the season.
The Phillies wrapped up a playoff spot on Sept. 26 by beating the Pirates in Philadelphia. Four days later, the Miami Marlins clinched a postseason berth by downing the Pirates at PNC Park.
Naturally, the Pirates wished it could have been them headed to the postseason. Instead, they are sitting at home for the eighth straight October since appearing in three straight National League Wild Card games from 2013-15.
“It was very sobering and level-setting to see teams clinch in front of us and see teams celebrate,” Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said. “I think that got everyone’s attention. Both in terms of, ‘Alright, we don’t want to be watching that in the future.’ But, also, that the gaps aren’t that big between our team and their team. I believe our players believe that we can compete with those teams.”
Indeed, the Pirates played contending teams tough down the stretch and had a role in preventing the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds from qualifying for the postseason. The Pirates won two of three games from both on the road in the season’s penultimate week.
Fueled by a 20-8 start and 18-13 finish, the Pirates wound up with a record of 76-86. That left the Pirates eight games away from a playoff berth, but it also represented their best record since 2018.
The Pirates’ play over the final 31 games left many players believing they could contend next season. That includes two of the more understated players in third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and left fielder Bryan Reynolds, who have both signed eight-year contract extensions in the last two years.
“We know we can be in the playoffs,” Hayes said. “We know we have the guys to do it. We’re one little notch away. We showed what we can do the first month of the season. I know guys are looking forward to next year. We already started talking about it, even though we were out of (contention). We’ve already started talking about doing what those teams are doing to clinch, to go into the playoffs. We’re going to be there next year.”
Reynolds isn’t quite ready to make the same pronouncement. However, he does feel the Pirates can put themselves in a position to play meaningful games late in the 2024 season.
“Just how we’ve been playing down the stretch for an extended period of time and how we’ve played teams that are fighting for a spot down the stretch,” Reynolds said during the final weekend of the season when asked why the ’24 Pirates can contend. “It seems like every series we’ve had has been that way. So yeah, just how we’ve been progressing.”
Another factor that can buoy the Pirates’ hopes of contending next season is that the Baltimore Orioles and Arizona Diamondbacks are currently participating in this year’s postseason. Both teams lost 110 games just two years ago.
Still, it’s difficult to see the Pirates contending with the roster as it is currently constituted.
While every team should shoot for a playoff spot, a more realistic goal for the 2024 Pirates should be breaking .500 for what would be for the first time since 2018. That would be a good jumping-off point on the way to eventually playing in October again.