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First Pitch: Statement Game

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The Pittsburgh Pirates just had the definition of a statement game.

They might be 42-45 after last night’s 14-2 victory over the New York Mets, but this team showed exactly why they could be at the start of an exciting contending window.

Paul Skenes made his tenth Major League start, and is already living up to his profile as a generational pitcher. Skenes allowed two runs on four hits in seven innings, with two walks and eight strikeouts. He improved to 5-0, and I could spend the rest of this article cherrypicking his first ten starts to show how he’s been one of the best young pitchers in the game’s history.

All that would say is what we know: The Pirates have an exciting pitching staff to watch for years. The sold-out crowd at PNC Park was on their feet for the final pitch from Skenes, erupting into cheers when he almost expectedly struck out his eighth batter on a slider.

I can’t remember a time when the Pirates had this level of pitching — whether it’s the upside of an individual like Skenes, or the staff as a whole. The problem this year has been a massive lack of offense to support that pitching.

Pirates’ General Manager Ben Cherington recently said that the team has more players internally who can improve than spots to fill at the trade deadline. This was a true statement, but wasn’t a great self-assessment of his offseason work. Cherington added Rowdy Tellez at first base, Yasmani Grandal behind the plate, and Michael A. Taylor in center field. All three are having the worst offensive seasons of their careers.

Things might be changing, and last night’s game underscores that possibility.

The Pirates won thanks to seven home runs — so many that they ran out of celebration fireworks. Insert a joke about Bob Nutting being too cheap to add a power hitter at the deadline, due to the increase in the firework budget. The home runs largely came from their struggling free agents.

Tellez has been on fire since the start of June, and continued his hitting with two homers on Friday night. A solo shot in the fourth inning put the Pirates on the board, down 2-1 at the time. He capped off the scoring in the eighth inning, with a grand slam that made it 14-2.

Since the start of June, Tellez is hitting .354/.400/.646 with six homers in 85 plate appearances. His first two months were horrible, but he’s been hitting so well lately that the Pirates could ignore first base at the trade deadline, opting to stick with Tellez for the full season.

Prior to the grand slam in the eighth, Grandal and Taylor both hit solo shots. Grandal also hit a double in Friday’s game. He looks better suited at this point to be a backup catcher, allowing the Pirates to see what they’ve got in Joey Bart the rest of the year. Grandal has been hitting the ball a long distance in a consistent manner over the last week, without great results. This time, he hit the ball far enough to secure a run.

Taylor has been one of the best defensive outfielders in the game, and outfield defense is a weak spot for the Pirates. He hit for his best power results last season, but that power hasn’t shown up this year. He’s been having his worst power results this year, along with his worst offensive results of his career. If Taylor can start to hit, the Pirates wouldn’t need to sell the farm for a 2024 center field upgrade at the deadline.

The offense on Friday night was paced by Bryan Reynolds, who went 4-for-6 with two homers, and has been one of the best hitters in the game over the last month-plus. Reynolds hit a two-run homer in the fifth inning to give the Pirates a 4-2 lead. He later broke the game open in the seventh inning with a grand slam, after Skenes had thrown his final pitch.

Since the start of June, Reynolds ranks eighth in all of baseball with a .439 wOBA, and 10th in wRC+. He’s looking like the 6-WAR version from 2021, which is a performance level he hasn’t shown since that season.

The Pirates also got a home run from Jack Suwinski, who tied the score at 2-2 with a solo shot, after the first homer from Tellez in the fourth. Suwinski has started to hit in the last few games, going 5-for-13 with two homers this month. Like others, Suwinski is having his worst offensive season this year. This came after he hit 26 homers and stole 13 bases last year, with above-average overall offensive results. Like others, there’s clear room for improvement from Suwinski.

This is a team that has the game’s most electric young pitcher starting to lead a very talented rotation.

It’s a team that has Bryan Reynolds re-emerging as one of the game’s best hitters.

It has one of the most dynamic young hitters in the game in Oneil Cruz, who had two hits on the night.

If Tellez keeps up his offense from the last month-plus, that would be a massive boost for the remainder of the season. If Grandal, Taylor, Suwinski, and others can also step up, the Pirates will reduce their needs at the deadline.

While they shouldn’t rely on internal improvements alone, this is a team that has a lot of potential for internal improvements on offense, before they look to the outside.

It’s also a team that can contend in the post-season if they get enough offensive help, whether internally or externally.

Depth Watch

**Ryan Borucki has pitched two games in a row in Triple-A, which is usually a sign that a reliever is finishing their rehab work. Borucki struck out five in two combined perfect innings, looking like his shutdown self. The Pirates bullpen could use his boost in the middle innings, especially with David Bednar currently out with an injury.

**Henry Davis has played two full games in a row in Triple-A. After being shut down last week with issues while running the bases, Davis has three hits in the last two games, including a double and a stolen base on Friday night. That’s a good sign as he recovers from a concussion.

**Marco Gonzales makes his latest rehab start for Indianapolis on Saturday night. He went three innings his last time out, so he’s still got a few more rehab appearances to go before he can join the MLB rotation as depth. The Pirates can safely turn to Luis Ortiz until that point, likely getting Gonzales back after the All-Star break.

**Joshua Palacios joined the Pirates this week, and went 1-for-3 with two walks and three runs scored as the leadoff hitter. The Pirates are now averaging 14 runs per game with Palacios batting leadoff.

Schedule Watch

I could see the Pirates heading into the All-Star break with a .500 record.

They’re currently three games under .500, with three more games in this four-game series against the Mets. Their toughest test will be a three-game series in Milwaukee next week, but that is followed by three games against the Chicago White Sox, one of the worst teams in the league.

If the Pirates only won one game against the Brewers, they would need to take five of six against the Mets and White Sox to enter the break at a .500 record. Winning the series against Milwaukee would be the big statement, as the Brewers are sitting 52-37, in first place in the NL Central.

This is a week for the Pirates to show what they can do as potential contenders in 2024.

Pirates Prospect Watch

Down in the minors, Po-Yu Chen has turned his season around in Altoona. There were some good results in Greensboro, with two homers from P.J. Hilson, one from Nick Cimillo, a double from Termarr Johnson, and a great start from Patrick Reilly. Read about all of Friday’s action in the latest Pirates Prospect Watch.

Pirates Prospect Watch: Po-Yu Chen Has Turned His Season Around in Altoona

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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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