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Pittsburgh Pirates outlook: They can’t compete in tough NL Central, but Bucs could be fun to watch

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Credit: Sam Greene/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

In 2023, the Pittsburgh Pirates had their best season in five years, going 76-86 and finishing fourth in the NL Central. It also marked the first year since 1999 that the Pirates finished ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals in the standings, which prompted the Redbirds to make a number of moves this offseason.

The Pittsburgh offense finished 22nd in runs scored and as a whole, they were 10% below league average, so they’ll have some work to do to reach the middle of the pack. One key factor for the Pirates in 2024 will be the return of Oneil Cruz, who played in just nine games last season before he fractured his left fibula. He missed the rest of the season.

This year, they’ll be without one of their best young pitchers from a season ago in 25-year-old Johan Oviedo, who ranked third among pitchers on the team in WAR (1.8) and second among qualified starters with a 4.38 ERA, trailing Mitch Keller. The team as a whole held a 4.88 ERA, which was 24th in baseball. Losing Oviedo will be a blow to the team, but they have made some nice additions to help offset his loss.

Let’s take a look at some of the moves the Pirates have made this winter, look at where they stand heading into 2024, and give you one key player to keep an eye on for the upcoming season.

Pittsburgh Pirates additions and subtractions

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The Pittsburgh Pirates are a rare team so far that is only set to lose players that had a positive impact on the club last season. Six players — Vince Velasquez, Osvaldo Bido, Miguel Adújar, Jarlín García, Hunter Stratton, and Andre Jackson — accounted for 1.9 WAR last season. Bido and Velasquez each notched 0.7 wins on the mound.

Even with the subtractions from the roster, the Pirates have added some nice pieces, including World Series champion Martín Pérez who is projected for 1.8 wins above replacement on his own. That just so happens to be the exact WAR total that Oviedo put up last season.

The team has also brought in switch-hitting catcher Yasmani Grandal (1.2 WAR), starter Marco Gonzales (0.7), outfielder Edward Olivares (0.8), and veteran reliever Aroldis Chapman (0.5) to help patch some of the holes the team had a year ago. Olivares figures to be a platoon option against left-handers with Joshua Palacios taking on the righties. Grandal will be behind the dish as much or as little as former top prospect Henry Davis allows. Chapman will be a bridge to closer David Bednar (and potentially a trade option at the deadline), while Pérez and Gonzales slot right into the rotation.

Overall, the team added 5.2 WAR to their roster, which could lead to a season in which they finish a little closer to their 2018 record of 82-79. That said, the NL Central will be tougher this season with the Cardinals re-tooled and the Reds on the rise. The Cubs also seem bound to do something before the season begins. So just where will the Pirates finish in 2024?

Pittsburgh Pirates expectations for the 2024 season

Pittsburgh Pirates
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According to the projections over at Baseball Prospectus, the Pittsburgh Pirates are expected to be a little bit worse in 2024, finishing with a 73-89 record which would slot them last in the Central. But don’t despair, Pirates fans. There is still room for hope in 2024.

First off, while Oviedo will miss the season, Oneil Cruz will be back in the lineup doing ridiculous things on the baseball field. If he comes back and cuts down on his strikeout rate from 2022, then he could become a real threat in that lineup. FanGraphs has him projected for 20 homers and 15 stolen bases.

Bryan Reynolds and Ke’Bryan Hayes complete a solid young core of hitters at the top of the lineup. Jack Suwinski was a nice surprise for the team in 2023, bopping 26 dingers, and if we see a repeat from him this year then this lineup could be shaping up fairly nicely.

It’s the pitching that will determine what Pittsburgh’s record will be. Most the the Pirates’ bats are projected to hit about .250 with double-digit dingers. The arms in the rotation are projected to have roughly 4.50 ERAs. The bullpen could be decent with Bednar and Chapman in the late innings, but it’s depth that the group appears to be missing.

The Pirates are building towards contention, but their division is also gearing up for runs of their own. Meanwhile, there just aren’t that many teams in the National League that you can point to and say definitively that Pittsburgh is better than outside of Colorado and Washington. The Pirates may end up finishing last in the division, but they should be a pretty decent watch on a nightly basis, which isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Pittsburgh Pirates player to keep an eye on in 2024

Pittsburgh Pirates
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This time we feel like cheating. We’re not going to talk about a single player, but instead two storylines. The first of which is what the Pirates do behind the plate. Henry Davis is a former first overall selection from 2021, and he made his big-league debut last season, batting .213 with a .302 OBP and a 76 wRC+ (100 is league average). This season he’s projected to be slightly above league average. The Pirates also said that after playing him in the outfield last year, he’s coming to Spring Training as a catcher.

So if Davis is the primary backstop, what’s the plan for Grandal? He’s coming off of two subpar seasons at the plate and is entering his age 35 season. How long will his leash be? Pittsburgh also brought in backstop Ali Sánchez, 27, who is out of options. He’s projected for a similar offensive season as Grandal, but should represent an upgrade defensively. He also has little MLB playing time, last appearing in 2021 with St. Louis.

The other storyline worth watching with the Pirates is which starting pitcher will step up and claim a spot in the rotation. Mike Burrows looks like a potential fit once he’s healed up from Tommy John surgery last April, but he’ll need some time to build back up. Paul Skenes is coming, but will anyone put up a fight? This season could be the last chance to earn a spot on this roster for a few guys as the youth movement continues in Pittsburgh.

Jason Burke covers MLB for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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