This is the fourth part in a four-part series where our staff at Pittsburgh Baseball Now gives our takeaways from the Pittsburgh Pirates 2023 season. Click here for part one. Click here for part two. Click here for part three.
The Pittsburgh Pirates showed progress in 2023.
Though their 76-86 record left them eight games out of a playoff spot and in fourth place, it was progress. The Pirates lost 101 games in 2021, 100 games in 2022 and were last in the National League Central each of the previous four seasons.
The 14-win improvement was also significant. It marked the biggest jump in wins from one season to the next for the Pirates since the 2013 team went 94-68, winning 15 more games than the 2012 team that had a 79-83 record.
Here are my top three takeaways from the season that ended Sunday:
Andrew McCutchen is Very Popular
Yeah, no kidding, but I must admit that Andrew McCutchen is even more popular with Pirates fans than I thought.
Signing McCutchen to a one-year, $5-million contract last January gave a fanbase that had sat through those four straight last-place finishes something to get excited about. Very, very excited.
There was a buzz in spring training that had not existed since McCutchen and Gerrit Cole were traded not long before the Pirates reported to Bradenton in 2018. Having McCutchen in the clubhouse at Pirate City truly legitimized the Pirates again.
And I’ve been to 46 consecutive Pirates’ home openers. Few could top this year’s for pure theatre and that was because of McCutchen.
It will be hard to ever forget the PNC Park roaring when McCutchen stepped into the batter’s box for his first home plate appearance in a Pirates’ uniform in five years. McCutchen rose to the occasion by singling off the Chicago White Sox’s Lucas Giolito.
The best part of McCutchen’s return was him showing he is still a productive offensive player despite being 36 years old. Though limited to designated hitter beginning May 31, McCutchen hit .256/.378/.397 with 12 home runs and 11 stolen bases in 112 games before being sidelined by a partially torn Achilles tendon for the last four weeks of the season.
The Pirates’ season attendance rose by more than 373,000 this year. Many of those extra tickets were sold because of McCutchen.
More Starting Pitching is Needed
Recently retired Cleveland Guardians manager Terry Francona was always fond of saying, “If you think you have enough pitching, go get more.”
Those are words Ben Cherington can live by this offseason. The Pittsburgh Pirates general manager, though, knows quite well that he needs help in the rotation.
Just three Pirates pitchers made more than 16 starts and manager Derek Shelton basically ended the season with a two-man rotation consisting of Mitch Keller and Johan Oviedo. Shelton was left to fill the other three spots by mixing and maxing with openers and bulk-inning relievers or having bullpen games.
The rotation took a hit when Vince Velasquez made just eight starts before needing season-ending elbow surgery. JT Brubaker didn’t make it long as his elbow blew out in the final days of spring training.
Two promising young pitchers, Roansy Contreras and Luis Ortiz, basically imploded. Though Ortiz rebounded, Contreras did not.
Considering the sad state of the Pirates’ starting pitching by the end of the season, it was a noteworthy accomplishment to win 76 games.
There is Hope for the Future
I’ve watched and covered a whole lot of Pirates’ rebuilds since becoming a baseball writer in 1988. Very few of them have worked.
Some people in the Pirates’ clubhouse following Sunday’s 3-0 win over the postseason-bound Miami Marlins at PNC Park to end the season were talking about making a run at the playoffs next year. The optimism was understandable following a good win that finished an 18-13 stretch.
Yet thinking the Pirates could be playing at this time in 2024 still seems like a bit of wishful thinking with the current roster.
Of the 28 players on the active roster on the last day of the season, 17 were 26 years old or younger. The Pirates finished the year having the youngest team in the major leagues.
The Pirates have some intriguing rookies such as right-hander Quinn Priester, set-up reliever Carmen Mlodzinski, catcher Endy Rodriguez, first baseman Jared Triolo, shortstop Liover Peguero and right fielder Henry Davis. The Pirates also have an intriguing core group that includes Keller, third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, shortstop Oneil Cruz, left fielder Bryan Reynolds and center fielder Jack Suwinski.
There are also a few other prospects still on the way.
If you squint a little, you can see the nucleus of a good team starting to form. Maybe not good enough to get to the postseason for the first since 2015 but good enough to remove the Pirates from the laughingstock category.