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Williams: Has The Future Finally Arrived?

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I’ll be honest, I wasn’t interested in covering the “build” part of this “build” as closely as I covered the last Pittsburgh Pirates front office in their building attempts. Part of that is escaping the toxic complaining of some Pirates fans who treat sports almost like an addict treats drugs. If they don’t get their positive fix, they turn angry and demand that Derek Shelton and fifty other people get fired instantly.

Ever since Ben Cherington took over as the General Manager, I’ve had the 2024 season circled as a year where the Pirates should be contending. Whether you want to call this a “build”, as Cherington did right away, or the classic “rebuild” terminology, the reality is that by this point we should be seeing results.

And, we’re about to see those results.

**The first overall pick in the 2021 draft, Henry Davis, is making his spring case to be a regular catcher in the majors who can hit for power.

**The first overall pick in the 2023 draft, Paul Skenes, just led a pitching-strong group of Pirates prospects to a win in the Spring Training breakout game, and Skenes could break into the majors by this summer.

**They’ve got prospects battling for spots all over the field, from the mound, to second base, to the outfield, to the bullpen. A lot of those players reflect the rebuilding decisions, such as the second base battle between Liover Peguero (returned in the Starling Marte trade which kicked off the build) and Nick Gonzales (the first pick under Ben Cherington’s front office).

**The current group of young players started arriving in the majors when Oneil Cruz reached Pittsburgh in mid-2022. The Pirates now have a core of 24-25 year old players with upside potential, and this will be the first year that many of them play together from the start.

**The best players from the early part of the build have been extended for the long-term. Ke’Bryan Hayes, Mitch Keller, and Bryan Reynolds are all under long-term deals, after being the highest WAR-grossing players on the team over the last few seasons.

**What I’ve liked about Cherington’s General Manager career is his ability to find value in the free agent market. He’s found solid low-budget additions the last few years, highlighted by Jose Quintana in 2022 and Carlos Santana in 2023. This year’s biggest addition was Aroldis Chapman, who could range from being a prime trade chip at the deadline to being a premium late-inning option on a contending team. The Pirates are also rolling the dice with Rowdy Tellez at first base, Martin Perez on the mound, and Andrew McCutchen has returned as the primary DH.

The 2024 season will be a convergence of the prospects the Pirates have built around, the free agent acquisition ability of Cherington working with a low budget, and the changes to the MLB development system. Here are two things I like about this team’s chances of contending, and one concern that still needs to be addressed.

What I Like: The Power

This team has a lot of power potential in the lineup. Cruz has displayed this with some of the hardest hit pitches this spring. Cruz has less than 500 plate appearances in the majors, so the 2024 season will hopefully be his first chance to show what a full season of his power can produce.

Jack Suwinski, Bryan Reynolds, and Rowdy Tellez could each hit 25 or more homers. Henry Davis might join that group if he adjusts well enough to the majors. I could even see Ke’Bryan Hayes exceeding 20 home runs with the advancements he’s made to his hitting game.

It’s not just power at the plate, but power on the mound. The Pirates feature what could be one of the best bullpens in the game this year. Aside from having David Bednar and Aroldis Chapman closing things out, they have Collin Holderman, Carmen Mlodzinski, Ryan Borucki, and an assortment of hard throwers in the minors. That includes Jared Jones and Braxton Ashcraft, who could both start, but might both be best in a relief role to start their MLB careers.

That gets to the second thing I like about this 2024 team.

What I Like: The Pitching

The Pirates have a farm system stocked with interesting pitching options, and they’re starting to reach the big leagues. The current rotation has a lot of question marks beyond Mitch Keller. By the end of this season, Paul Skenes should take one of those spots in the big league rotation.

The Pirates have Quinn Priester, Roansy Contreras, Luis Ortiz, Jones, and Ashcraft as young candidates for rotation spots. If they can turn 1-2 of those guys into MLB quality starters by the end of this year, that would be a win for the long-term staff.

JT Brubaker is a wild card, returning from Tommy John mid-season, after posting league average or better results as a starter in the past. He’ll almost be like a free trade addition ahead of the deadline.

The Pirates returned to the lefty-sleeper well, adding Martin Perez as their big starting pitching free agent. They also brought on Marco Gonzales in a salary dump deal, with the hope that he returns well from an injury-filled year. Eric Lauer was recently added on a minor-league deal, giving another potential reclamation guy from the left side.

By the end of this year, Pirates fans should at least be looking ahead to the next group that includes Bubba Chandler, Anthony Solometo, and Thomas Harrington, with some of the question marks in the big league rotation filled with answers.

The rotation has some question marks today, but only projects to get stronger as the season goes on. As mentioned above, the bullpen is a major strength. The rotation of mostly innings eaters and young players with potential might mesh well with power at the plate and power in the pen.

Remaining Concern: The Development

Not to throw cold water on anything, but the Pirates have yet to show that they’ve fixed the problem of developing players to their full potential in Pittsburgh. In fact, there are still concerning signs as recent as last summer with Robert Stephenson that raise questions as to whether this team can get the most out of their players.

This is where I’ll note that the talk about Oneil Cruz surrounds potential, while clinging to Spring Training home runs. The talking about Henry Davis surrounds potential, while grading his catching on radio broadcasts. The talk around Paul Skenes surrounds potential, while realizing it’s not a fail if he doesn’t immediately go to the majors as a seven-inning every five day starter. In large part, the Pirates are relying on a lot of players who haven’t done it yet in the majors, while relying on a lot of players who have done it before in the majors.

Can enough of the young players adjust quick enough to make the Pirates contenders? Can enough of the veteran players have bounce back seasons to make any prospect progression worthwhile? Can the Pirates get the most out of any of their players, other than left-handed free agent pitchers throwing in PNC Park?

There have been changes made to the MLB coaching staff this offseason to address these question marks. Ultimately, those questions will be answered by the progression and results of the season.

The results of the development system at the top level will make or break the 2024 Pirates as contenders. Ideally, you want them entering 2025 as legitimate contenders, rather than the continuation of this current state where they’re still playing “what if?” with unproven prospects and reclamation free agents.

Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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