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.
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.