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Monday, December 5, 2022

Pirates Roundtable: When Will the Pirates Be Contenders Again?

This has been a long season, with the Pittsburgh Pirates finishing 62-100, and looking like they might be heading for another rebuilding season in 2023.

Our most popular feature on the site this year has been the Roundtable feature, where each writer blind-reacts to a question that I pose to the group. Each writer gives their answer and supporting statements without knowing what anyone else is going to say. The result usually gives a well-rounded look, with each person approaching the topic from a different angle.

For our first Roundtable of the offseason, I had a question that everyone wants to know:

When will the Pirates be contenders again?

JOHN DREKER: 2024

The Pirates seem like they are set up to start looking like a playoff contender in mid-2023, but I don’t think that they will contend over the course of a season until 2024. They have a ton of top prospects at the upper level right now, with many of them having a chance to arrive for good in the second half of next year. Not all prospects reach their potential, but there’s enough upside in the group for some misses.

You have Henry Davis and Endy Rodriguez behind the plate, with both having secondary positions to allow that platoon to work. Besides Ke’Bryan Hayes, Oneil Cruz and Rodolfo Castro, the infield could add Ji Hwan Bae, Liover Peguero and Nick Gonzales during the season. You have Bryan Reynolds to anchor the outfield, with someone from the previously mentioned group joining him. Cal Mitchell showed promise and could be better with a full season in the majors, plus there are darkhorse candidates such as Matt Gorski and Blake Sabol. Jack Suwinski might be a better overall player next year thanks to his extended experience this season.

On the pitching side you have Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, JT Brubaker, Luis Ortiz and Johan Oviedo as starter possibilities early in the season, with top pitching prospects Quinn Priester and Mike Burrows on the cusp of joining them for the rotation battle. That’s without adding anyone through free agency or trades, which seems like a possibility when enough pieces are in place to actually compete.

The first half of 2023 could look very similar to what we are seeing right now, which includes some promise/actual results from the rotation. The young hitters still have their flaws. I wouldn’t call any of them finished products, but there’s no reason not to let them go out there next year and battle through the first half, while adding in those top 100 prospects as they become ready throughout the year. By next August I expect the actual contributors to playoff contenders to be in place, and then we could see a nice run to finish the season.

WILBUR MILLER: 2025

In a broad sense, the three things they need to have happen: the addition of some significant upside from the farm system, some judicious additions from outside that will cost actual money, and an absolute cessation of this front office’s fascination with baseball players who can’t play baseball.

On the first point, you win with above-average players. The Pirates have very few of those now and not very many who project to be that good. Oneil Cruz and Roansy Contreras, even if they live up to the promise, aren’t going to be enough. So the reinforcements from Altoona are going to have to arrive and get some time to get acclimated. The team has staked everything on guys like Quinn Priester, Henry Davis, Endy Rodriguez, Liover Peguero, etc. And most of these guys are going to need a year or two past their arrival time to hit their stride.

Second, they have to start filling some holes with players from outside who are making noticeably more than the major league minimum. What put the team over the top during Neal Huntington’s brief run of success was veterans like A.J. Burnett, Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano, and Edinson Volquez. Those guys were all bargains, but they did cost a little money, far more than the Pirates have been willing to spend ever since those days, which is a big reason why the run of success ended so abruptly. I’m very skeptical whether Bob Nutting is ever going to be willing to spend anything like what the team needs. Every year the team bumbles along with its current farcical payroll is a year of big profits for Nutting. I don’t see him giving up on that for another couple of years. The profits are just too . . . profitable.

Third, the front office’s decision-making has to improve on a biblical scale. The staggering number of innings and plate appearances wasted on mind-numbingly awful players have to dry up. Among other things, it’s not possible to build a bench or bullpen out of guys who aren’t even decent Triple-A players. The recent acquisition of Zack Collins with the idea of making him the first baseman is an example that the idiocy isn’t going anywhere yet.

ANTHONY MURPHY: 2024

Really, I believe the Pirates could contend for a playoff spot next year if they really wanted to push the timeline. They have the pieces there, the rotation really took a step forward and with some extra depth could hold up the entire season. They have the building blocks in Oneil Cruz, Bryan Reynolds and Ke’Bryan Hayes with supporting pieces on the way or already getting their feet wet.

That would of course mean that the Pirates got really aggressive this offseason, which isn’t likely to happen. Following a path similar to Neal Huntington’s tenure, we should see the Pirates take some sort of step forward this upcoming season, even if it isn’t a winning record. So any potential window probably truly opens in 2024, with 2025 likely as the actual point they put a consistent winner on the field, if all should go as planned.

With the expanded playoffs I can see a scenario in which they make a wildcard appearance in 2024, with eyes on more of a legitimate push in the years after that.

JEFF REED: 2024

MLB added a playoff spot, but it didn’t decrease the number of wins needed to reach the playoffs.

With another 100-loss season in the books, the Pittsburgh Pirates still need to find around 25 more wins.

As it stands, I’d say the rotation and bullpen are in a better spot than the position player side of things. The Pirates have the makings of what could be, at worst, a league average staff and quite a few of intriguing upcoming arms that should in the least provide depth. Where they’ll need to make huge advancements is on the offensive and defensive side of the ball.

The Pirates have an assortment of prospects that appear as they could work their way into regular playing time and the question becomes how soon could that be and how will the Front Office supplement it.

As 2022 dragged on, it felt that the year was designed more around finding out which fringe prospects could potentially carve out even the slightest role moving forward. Such as when Ke’Bryan Hayes has a nagging back injury and needs sat down, who can they call on to provide production in that time?

Middle infielder Diego Castillo jumped on the scene as the Spring Training breakout star, but by season’s end he was getting time at first base after showing that outfield also wasn’t in his future. Castillo didn’t have a high ceiling, but he also was a prospect that did see success in upper levels prior to debuting. He is Josh Vanmeter, before VanMeter became the focal point of fan’s angst.

The 2023 season may see a few outside additions, but I think the focus will be more about finding the secure in-house future pieces. Castillo or a Tucupita Marcano may see a breakthrough as Rodolfo Castro did, or they may just give the reins to Ji Hwan Bae and say run with it.

2024 is the soonest I can see the Pirates truly entering a season thought of as a contender. I can’t say the Pirates currently have an established core, but I think it is possibly on the cusp.

TIM WILLIAMS: 2024

I don’t think it’s impossible for the Pirates to contend in 2023. I just think they need the right pieces. The rotation shows potential, and could use the boost of a veteran starter or two. Bringing back Jose Quintana on a multi-year deal would be the best budget-friendly move, as he did very well pitching in PNC Park. Adding another established starter on top of that would strengthen the rotation, and turn a lot of the Bryse Wilson/Johan Oviedo/Luis Ortiz situations into strong depth — as opposed to players the Pirates need to rely on the entire season.

The Pirates have prospects arriving for a lot of their key needs. They could use a stopgap catcher, and bringing back Roberto Perez wouldn’t be a bad idea. They need a first base option. I’m not going to say that contenders don’t go into the year with Miguel Andújar as their best first base option — the Pirates contended with Gaby Sanchez at first base. I will say that this is a clear spot they could upgrade, with Andújar looking better as depth. The outfield could also use an upgrade, making the contributions from the upper-level prospects a bonus, rather than a necessity.

Depth is a key factor for a contending team. The Pirates have done a great job of building up prospect depth. The translation for that is they have found a lot of players who can play in the majors. However, depth is 40-grade prospects, and 45-grade at best. The Pirates are developing some starters and impact players. No team can fully develop what they need through the farm system. The Pirates can bank on stronger depth coming from the farm system, but it can only be depth if they’re not also relying on the farm system to fill out the MLB club. The farm system can’t do both.

If the Pirates added three key starters on offense (C, 1B, OF), two starting pitchers (pushing Mitch Keller/Roansy Contreras/JT Brubaker to the back-end of the rotation), and a solid reliever (to save the arms of David Bednar and Wil Crowe), then I think they could contend in 2023.

The problem is, I wouldn’t bet on the Pirates adding that many players from the outside in one offseason. It seems more likely that they will let the farm system try to do it all. Perhaps they will add players like Perez behind the plate, and Quintana as a value starter (I think he will still have value, even at a higher deal over multiple-years). I can see this happening, but I find it harder to believe they will add impact starters on both sides of the ball this offseason.

It feels safer to predict a 2024 contender, although I think the Pirates will feel pressure to add at the deadline in 2023. We will run this feature at the end of the offseason. It would take several outside additions between now and then for me to change my answer to 2023.

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Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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1979andCounting

The added 6th team to the playoffs actually did lower the number of wins needed. In 2021, the Blue Jays (91 wins) and Mariners (90) sat at home. In the NL, the Cards got in with 90 wins. In 2022, the Rays got in with only 86 wins, and the Phillies with 87 W’s. The Brewers missed with 86.

I think it’s a significant change adding the 6th team, especially for the Pirates. Unfortunately, it is still a distant light at the end of the tunnel as for the current team as constructed. There’s no way this team improves 25 games in 2023. Yeah, the Orioles did it, but they have a lot smarter GM and coaching staff than we do.

Last edited 1 month ago by 1979andCounting
david.althoff

Here is what they shouldn’t do under any circumstances. Trade prospects to the Rays for a mlb starting pitcher. Can we agree on that? In fact, I would ask them who they want, and then never ever trade those players.

MShaeffer4444

Honestly, if I’m an MLB General Manager, and the Rays are asking me about one of my players, I’m going to hang up on them and take a long, hard look at said player.

TNBucs

But I suppose it is fine to trade prospects to the Yankees for a veteran pitcher.

The concept is fine; it’s all about the execution.

emjayinTN

Or AAA Catchers like Christian Bethancourt who started Game 1 of the Playoffs behind the plate for TB. Kevin Cash and the TB mentality that he has instilled at TB are light years ahead of the Pirates. We need to find a Manager like Cash or Craig Counsell – guys who scrapped for every inning and AB, and are now inspiring their players to do the same.

Many of the experts see Don Kelly as one of the Top 5 or 6 best Manager candidates available right now. He was the same way – fought for every inning and AB and parlayed average skills to a 9 year career in MLB. Maybe he learned something playing under Jim Leyland in Detroit.

chuck_conner

A new young manager would definitely be my 1st move. A progressive hitting coach would help also.

TNBucs

In ‘23 they should have a season like this year’s Orioles or the 2011-2012 Pirates where they hang around at least past the trade deadline. That would take some smart moves and spending this offseason, so I think ‘24 will be when we have a season like this year’s Orioles and ‘25 will be when we actually contend.

Wilbur’s post the other day noting that in 6 of Cherington’s 7 years as a GM he’s “guided” his team to a last place finish is worrisome. He has a lot to prove.

jaygray007

I was taking a look at how much playing time the team gave to horrible players.

Cole tucker, 63 PA, 4 wrc+
Knapp, 35 PA, 18
Yoshi, 193, 38
Bligh, 123, 45
Greg A, 134, 52
Delay, 167, 53
Heineman, 158, 54
Tucupita, 177, 57
JVM, 192, 59
Diego C, 283, 73
Cal M, 232, 79
Chavis, 426, 80
Marisnick, 82, 80

that’s several man-seasons worth of dogshit production. There’s definitely a path toward this list being much smaller next season.

SS, 1b, and C are the main culprits here, and next year we have some top guys coming at C, anticipate 1b to be addressed in SOME capacity, as theyve said as much, and we now how oneil Cruz at short.

getting this list down is some very low hanging fruit for improving next year’s win total. here’s hoping.

Bucs'N'Pucks (Jeff Reed)

So much leadership and veteranosity in that list (aka dogshit as you said)

AdministrativeSky236

Could it be possible to have competent play and veteranitis in the same player? Nahhhhhh

jaygray007

i realize a few of those players will still be around, but i think we can either expect some growth or some reduced playing time for those guys.

john_fluharty

Not for the $$ we have to spend.

jaygray007

I think no matter what, this core will need outside help. it’s just a matter of when, or if, they’ll ever get that outside help. I wouldnt be surprised if they never got the requisite outside help.

ArkyWags

Exactly. Any core needs help. I don’t count on them doing that though. At least not substantially.

AttyMike

The current management team’s success plan looks like its predecessor’s. One of the many similarities b/t the two leadership groups. I truly doubt that they’ll ever fill in the gaps with meaningful free agents. Its going to be a build from within plan exclusively and just like the last group, they’re hoping to get lucky every once and a while that everything will come together and they’ll pop into the playoffs.

mpg43952

As long as the present administration is in place, the Bucs will never contend. Nickles is making money at present, Ben doesn’t seem to be able to operate under Nickles constraints, and Shelton is a placeholder until more talent arrives. We’re the Washington Generals, and 75% of our foes are the globetrotters.

MB21

Five years after either the death of Bob Nutting or his insanity (or inexplicably – the sale to an owner who happens to like baseball).

1979andCounting

Are his daughters going to inherit the team? Or have any different approach to spending?

john_fluharty

Nutting is 60. He’ll probably live another 20 years.

postal911

With Bob Nutting owning the team, I just don’t see them making the playoffs in the next 3 years. You would need a bunch of guys hitting their 90% outcomes and that’s really hard to do. Now if Bob would jump the payroll to $110 million and they shop wisely then maybe they can contend in 2024. There are so many holes that the minors can’t fill. They have to spend in order to compete. The plus side is that the nl central isn’t looking super strong now. Cards are bit shaky, Brewers went backwards, Reds and Cubs are also in rebuilds. The division is winnable if ownership shows a commitment.

1979andCounting

Well said.

docdon385

When MLB decides to make changes that financially incentivize winning over losing. The Pirates might well improve their record over the next few years using their prospects but contending requires spending and that is not likely to happen as long as Nutting can continue to rake in money while fielding a bad or mediocre team.

Revenue sharing was intended to level the playing field but all it’s done is to allow owners like Nutting to make large amounts of money by doing nothing. Why would he change that? He cares absolutely nothing about the game of baseball so why would he want to?

Wilbur Miller

In reality, MLB is doing everything it can to disincentivise winning. The goal is a NY/LA WS every year. The less incentive for the bottom 20 or so teams, the better.

And, no, this isn’t hyperbole. I mean it very literally.

skliesen

I don’t know about the NY/LA WS every year part, but nobody can deny MLB economic plan is to give teams in bigger markets the best chance to win WS.

EightMenOut

The owners won’t agree to a minimum payroll threshold and the players won’t agree to salary caps. Oversimplified, I know. Not sure it ever gets made right, which is very sad for most fans.

EightMenOut

Maybe the next question should be, “what would the Pirate payroll need to be for them to make the playoffs next year”

I think they can play above 500 in 2023 if they add two good, but not ace, starting pitchers, and a league average catcher.

emjayinTN

Within the next week, terminate the contract of Derek Shelton; install Don Kelly as the Interim Manager. That could light a fire and indicate that the franchise wants more than the 3 years of sub-.400 winning percentages of Shelton! That’s as basic as it can get!

BRU and Keller both had strong years indicating (I hope) they are developing into reliable MLB SP’s. With the adds of Contreras and Oviedo to the Rotation, and the possibility of adding Burrows, Ortiz, and possibly Bolton, this team can contend in 2023.

The position players need to hit consistently and field consistently. I keep saying we have a solid young nucleus with Hayes, Reynolds, Cruz, Castro, and Suwinski. Building on that with Ji-Hwan Bae at 2B and Endy Rodriguez at C/DH and 1B out of ST or within the first 2 months is essential. They fill out the lineup with solid K/BB rates and some power. We need Henry Davis to come to ST healthy and ready to Catch/DH and possibly play Chavis-caliber 1B at the MLB level – up NLT June.

It will not happen on paper or in somebody’s mind – they have to play at the MLB level. That belief that a prospect can be ruined by being exposed too early just does not seem to apply to these new generations.

ArkyWags

Why would Don Kelly matter? Aside from the fact that he’s a native. Is the next move hiring Walker to coach infielders?

emjayinTN

I am not satisfied with Shelton, and the Pirates have become the laughing stock of MLB. Kelly has the background and desire to lead this team. Local boy makes good can play very well for this franchise, and we have nothing to lose.

I would not object to Neil Walker getting involved with the Pirates in any capacity.

ArkyWags

I’m not satisfied by Shelton either. But I think hiring a local kid isn’t really indicative he can do the job either. We’re gonna hire based on geography? Kelly, by all accounts, is certainly qualified. But I’m not sure how much better he’d be with no other additions to the team.

joesolo6181

seeing is believing.

piratemike

You are all wrong.
Never is the answer.

Wilbur Miller

Question probably should have been, When could the Pirates be contenders?

Bucs'N'Pucks (Jeff Reed)

Or even “should”

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