Pittsburgh Pirates' best-case and worst-case scenarios for 2024 season

Mar 5, 2024; Bradenton, Florida, USA;  Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz (15) hits a home run
Mar 5, 2024; Bradenton, Florida, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz (15) hits a home run / Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

It is an interesting thought experiment to envision the Pittsburgh Pirates as postseason contenders in 2024. It’s also unusual; the Pirates haven’t played a postseason game since 2015, also their last serious run at contention.

In the contemporary NL Central, however, it’s perilous to count anybody out, especially a team with a gaggle of young potential stars. That’s – sorta, anyway – the Pirates. Which means that, for the first time in nearly a decade, it’s possible for Pirate fans to dream.

Best-Case Scenario for 2024 Pittsburgh Pirates

Let’s begin with the guy who wasn’t there in 2023, shortstop Oneil Cruz. An early April fractured ankle cost him all but nine games in 2023. But we’re talking about a 6-7, 215 lb. 25-year old shortstop, so the physical potential is pretty much in-your-face. The Pirates believe all Cruz needs is enough time on the job to get comfortable both in the field and at the plate.

They’re also waiting on offense from third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, and perhaps this will be the season that happens as well. Since a sensational 2020 debut, Hayes’ productivity has plateaued, and entering his age-27 season, it’s beginning to look as though his career .264 average and .720 OPS are what he’s going to give. His +21 Defensive Runs Saved remains Hayes’ best asset.

If the Pirates are going to challenge, outfielders Bryan Reynolds and Jack Suwinski have to bounce back from so-so 2023 seasons. Reynolds has twice topped .300, and with his lack of long-ball power, that .300 mark is pretty much a baseline for his productivity.

In his first full season, Suwinski hit just .224, but he did produce power in the form of 26 home runs. Like the rest of the Pirates core, he’s still in his 20s and the growth curve points upward.

It would also count as a big plus if Jared Triolo establishes himself at second base. Anticipating his first full season after his late-June callup last year, Triolo hit .298 and fielded okay mostly backing up Hayes at third, then hit. 325 this spring.

Mitch Keller is a plausible Cy Young candidate atop the rotation. Keller went 13-9, although with a 4.21 ERA, in 32 starts last season, for which he got a five-year, $77 million deal. David Bednar is one of the game’s few lockdown closers; a two-time All Star, he saved a league-leading 39 games last season.

Give Hayes, Reynolds, Cruz, and Suwinski back-to-back productive seasons supporting a strong showing by Keller and there’s no reason why Pittsburgh can’t contend.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2024 Pittsburgh Pirates

Of course getting championship-quality seasons from Hayes, Reynolds, Triolo, Cruz AND Suwinski simultaneously may be a tall order, which is why the thinness of the team’s rotation behind Keller is a major concern. The Pirates were bottom 10 in runs allowed per game last season, a major reason why most of their rotation has turned over.

The question is whether any of the new parts are superior to the old ones. Veteran Marco Gonzales came over in an offseason deal with Atlanta, but he managed only a 5.22 ERA in 10 starts with the Mariners in 2023 before losing the final four months to a forearm strain. That’s not exactly reassuring.

Bailey Falter, obtained in a mid-season trade with the Phillies, will get a chance to show what he can do. So far it hasn’t been much; Falter has a career 4.76 ERA in 31 starts over three seasons.

The projected fourth and fifth starters are veteran Martin Perez and youngster Quinn Priester. Perez was 10-4 for the champion Rangers last season, but his 4.45 ERA strongly suggests he benefitted from a better offense than the Pirates are likely to provide. When the postseason rolled around, he went mostly untouched. Priester is a system product who ran up a 7.74 ERA in eight late-season starts as a rookie.

In the likely event help is needed, it might come from J.T. Brubaker once he recovers from Tommy John surgery. That could happen by the All-Star break, but no guarantees.

If Pittsburgh’s apparent pitching gaps prove to be real, the Pirates may find themselves back in their accustomed spot in the nether regions of the NL Central.

Most realistic scenario for 2024 Pirates

The NL Central projects to be such a crapshoot in 2024 that there really isn’t a comfortable forecast for any of its teams. In the case of the Pirates, the potential imbued in all that young talent is fascinating. But the gaps – that rotation, the unlikeliness of large productivity improvements from Hayes, Triolo, Cruz, Suwinski or Reynolds – argue against getting carried away.

In a sense, the best thing going for the Pirates is the perception that none of their divisional opponents appear to have the talent base to pull away from the pack. If the NL Central becomes a race to escape from mediocrity, then Pittsburgh has as good a chance as the Cardinals, Cubs, Reds or Brewers.

Milwaukee Brewers' best-case and worst-case scenarios for 2024 (calltothepen.com)