The Pittsburgh Pirates are the ultimate symbol of everything bad in MLB. They play in perhaps the best stadium in the league. They have a passionate fan base just screaming for a team worth their time, assuming they aren’t all driven away (and they may need the Pirates soon considering the Penguins seem to be developing milk carton pieces). And they have an owner who simply doesn’t want to give them anything. Bob Nutting butchered a good team from the middle of the last decade and then didn’t even try to make up for it. He took his income sharing checks, laughed to the bank and that was it. There’s a great story waiting to go public in Pittsburgh, but Nutting will almost certainly never let it happen. There’s no reason the Pirates can’t do what the Brewers have done for the last five years, except their owner doesn’t feel that way.
What’s probably more frustrating for the handful of Bucs fans who can’t let go is that the NL Central couldn’t be a more hospitable place for a team moving up the order quickly. The only financial problem in the division, the Chicago Cubs, refuse to act like that and want to convince their fans that they are in fact the Royals. The Reds thought an 83-win team was too expensive. The Brewers are well managed, but they have limits on how much they can do and are hamstrung by paying Christian Yelich MVP money when he is no longer even close to an MVP.
The Cardinals will dance to this division with a team that has no more than 88 or 89 wins on paper. The Cardinals are trying, but not all that hard, and that’s more than enough in this wasteland.
It wouldn’t be hard for the Pirates to find a way to actually be relevant. But since this is Nutting’s team, they have to do it the slow way. And a cheap way. And no Pirates fan is going to grab this team with both hands knowing that as soon as Nutting costs more than a button, he will order their best players traded or let go. You can’t blame them.
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Still, PNC Park will no longer be a place where hope dies, at least for a while.
It starts short, where Oneil Cruz lives, a player who can hit the ball to Scranton and also throw it through his first baseman’s sternum. Cruz had serious strikeout problems in his first season, but he was also 23 years old, still hitting .450, and showed pretty good discipline in the minors. There should be a rebound.
On the mound, Mitch Keller is one of the better pitchers you’ve never really seen. Keller would have been in the top 10 in the nation last year had he made three more innings, and his jump in success is largely due to the discovery of a new skater that was all the rage last year. Behind him is Roansy Contreras, a 23-year-old who has very limited innings above single A but has struck out a third of the hitters he’s seen in AA and AAA. Contreras also comes with a slider as a serious weapon, as hitters struck out 42 percent of them in his 18 starts with the Pirates last year.
There’s more under the surface. Endy Rodriguez, who the Pirates stole from the Mets off of something named Joey Lucchesi, was supposed to be on the Opening Day roster as a catcher, but he was, well, Pirates’d’ed. Quinn Priester went through four levels last year in the Pirates system, and unless the Pirates get addicted to watching Rich Hill try to show all 700 people at PNC Park how passionate he is, he’ll likely be in the rotation at some point. Luis Ortiz and Mike Burrows are other names that could appear at the start.
In the lineup, Nick Gonzales has an outside chance to join Cruz in the middle of the field. Henry Davis, another promising prospect, split A-ball and high-A last year, and will start in Double-A, but if he pans out the same way, the Pirates may have to figure out how to move Rodriguez to second or the other outfield. to accommodate both of them. Malcom Nunez entered Triple-A after coming from St. Louis in a contract with José Quintana, and Ji-Man Choi is clearly only intended as a spot for him or anyone else in 2024.
Will the Pirates be good? Not. There are still too many below Pittsburgh in the system, and not yet in Pittsburgh. Again, they’ll replace whatever they can, so the last two months will likely continue to be ugly and no amount of Andrew McCutcheon nostalgia will make up for it.
But 2024 and beyond… maybe? The Reds are also assembling a fair amount of exciting young players. But the Cardinals’ best players are over 30 years old. The Brewers can only dance for so long, with Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff two years away from free agency. The Cubs are just never going to go all out. It’s all there, and it could come down to who wants to act as the MLB team between the Pirates and Reds next year.
Some saplings once sprouted in PNC Park. Which is not to say that their fans don’t deserve more, but when their water is stolen, they drink sand.