Column | Pirates poised for minor improvement in 2023, still won’t contend for postseason


AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Pittsburgh Pirates’ Oneil Cruz hits a solo home run during a game against the Washington Nationals in June at Nationals Park in Washington.

By David Scott, Staff Writer

With spring training coming to an end, another season looms ahead for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Five years removed from their last winning season and eight years since their last playoff appearance, mediocrity is the new norm for the Pirates. 

Perhaps 2023 is the start of a new upswing for the team, with young talent rising through the system and a veteran presence through the roster.

In 2022, the Pirates finished their season with the second-worst record in the National League and the third-worst record overall. In 2021, they finished with the second-worst record in the National League and the fourth-worst record overall. 

Simply put, the Pirates are getting worse.

It’s hard to understand the constant mediocrity from the Pirates when they consistently bring up some of the league’s top prospects. Their young hitting core consists of shortstop Oneil Cruz, third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and outfielder Bryan Reynolds, who are three of the most marketable young talents in the MLB.

Also, waiting in the minor leagues are talents like second baseman Termarr Johnson, utility man Endy Rodriguez and catcher Henry Davis.

Despite what feels like a surplus of hitting talent, the offense never seems to click for the Pirates. In 2022, the team was ranked No. 14 or No. 15 in the National League in nearly every hitting category, most notably No. 15 in batting average, No. 15 in on-base percentage and No. 15 in OPS.

Hitting isn’t the only issue though — the Pirates pitching staff isn’t doing the team many favors. Not much stands out when looking at the team’s pitchers. 

The Pirates’ ace, Mitch Keller, pitched to a 3.91 ERA, which is not an awful number, but it’s certainly higher than expected from an ace. The only arm in the bullpen that stands out is David Bednar, an All-Star in 2022 with a career ERA sitting just under 3.0.

The 2022 Pirates pitched to a team ERA of 4.66 on their way to a 62-100 record. That ERA ranked No. 12 in the National League. As for other pitching statistics, the Pirates ranked No. 11 in strikeouts, No. 13 in hits and No. 14 in walks allowed.

Obviously, these bottom of the league stats can’t continue. Management must at least try to make roster-improving acquisitions. In typical Bob Nutting Pirates fashion, the team made some moves over the offseason that probably won’t do too much towards making them a winning team.

Most notable of the offseason moves is the organization’s reunion with Pirates legend Andrew McCutchen. 

McCutchen is far removed from his MVP days, but can still provide some much needed pop in the lineup. In 2022, he hit for a .237 average with 17 home runs. The year before, he hit 27 homers, showing that the power is still there. 

Also joining the lineup is Carlos Santana. A career power threat, he is getting up there in age but can still provide from the designated hitter spot. Santana hit 19 home runs in 2022 but will need to improve his average from his 2022 number of .202. 

Another addition is catcher Austin Hedges. The Pirates missed production from the catcher position and likely will continue to as Hedges hit for a measly .163 average in 2022 and has a career batting average of .189.

On the pitching side, veteran Rich Hill is one of the newest members of the Pirates. The 43-year-old pitcher is a career journeyman, playing for 12 teams in his career and brings a great veteran presence to the clubhouse. In his 18-year career, Hill owns a 3.85 career ERA and pitched 124 innings for the Red Sox last year. 

Vince Velasquez, another veteran pitcher, is also joining the staff. He pitched 75 innings for the White Sox last year and produced a 4.78 ERA, which is not really an improvement over what the Pirates already had. 

The last and best of the pitching additions is Jarlin Garcia. The former Giants reliever owns a career 3.61 ERA and tossed 56 strikeouts over 65 innings last year.

With all of the new additions and young talent, it’s hard to determine where the Pirates stand for the 2023 season. The National League Central is one of the MLB’s weaker divisions, but that is in part due to the Pirates being in that division. Realistically, they won’t capitalize on their weak division and will likely finish in last place.

Still, the Pirates can improve from their 100-loss 2022 season. With the progression of their young talent and the injection of veteran hitters, the team should get somewhat better. They definitely won’t be competing for playoff positions, though. 

With proper team management, the future is bright for the Pirates. Through 2023 and into 2024, a lot of the team’s top prospects will see MLB action, and the Pirates could become a more desirable destination for free agents.

Everything hinges on owner Bob Nutting. If he can stray from his cheapskate ways and retain players like Bryan Reynolds, then the Pirates have a future in the win column. If Nutting continues on the same path, then the mediocrity will likely continue for the foreseeable future. For now it is safe to expect the same from the 2023 Pirates, a team that shows flashes of fun but inevitably falls flat in the end.