Pittsburgh Pirates fans cautiously optimistic about their gathered young talent

How 'ready' are the Pirates to contend?

Chicago White Sox v Pittsburgh Pirates
Chicago White Sox v Pittsburgh Pirates / Justin K. Aller/GettyImages
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The question of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ readiness to “contend” in 2024 seemed to pop up literally the moment after the Bucs started packing for the offseason last fall. Pittsburgh’s season ended in 2023 with an Oct. 1 3-0 win over the Marlins. The team ended 76-86, and two days later AP writer Will Graves declared the Bucs were ready to go.

The Pirates had followed up one of their famous illusory starts (20-8) with a three-month fall-off, and a slightly better than .500 finish. GM Ben Cherington was a bit muted, but said, “We have a clear mind about what’s next, and that it’s not easy and not supposed to be easy.”

Manager Derek Shelton, however, was a bit more positive and added an interesting angle about his largely young squad: “I’m very encouraged with (August and September) because I think not only are we getting better record-wise, we’re playing better baseball but we’re also and this may sound a little different, we’re getting things out of the way.”

By this he meant players’ “firsts” – that first hit, or first error, or first start – that can sometimes be psychological sticking points for young players.

By December, an MLB.com headline kept the contending notion in place, sort of: “Are the Pirates ready to make a leap in 2024?” Everybody knows that wouldn’t mean a leap to five games under .500.

Does Pirates' Lineup Open 2024 Contention Window?

Well, how open the window to contend is remains debatable, but it’s inarguable that there is a strong, young Pirates core in center fielder Bryan Reynolds (29, All-Star in ’21, ROY-4 in ’19), shortstop Oneil Cruz (25, ROY-6 in ’22) and third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes (27, Gold Glove in ’23, ROY-6 in ’20). Cruz’ injury last April was probably as important to the Pirates not reaching .500 as anything else negative that happened to the team. He is reportedly now pain free and moving smoothly after recovering from a leg fracture.

These three players arguably need to step up this season with solid efforts. A couple probably need to post career bests in some category. For example, Cruz, with a full season’s at-bats under his belt, should easily eclipse 17 home runs and 54 RBI.

Reynolds needs to get back to a .300 batting average, which he should be capable of any season in the next three, and so forth.