Buccos off to another hot start in 2024

Brentaro Yamane | Multimeda Editor | Andrew McCutchen is spending the sunset of his career building a new generation of Pirates.

Aidan Weiss | Staff Writer

The Penguins might miss the playoffs again, the Steelers are looking like a quarterback’s graveyard, and the North Shore is underwater. Somehow, the Pittsburgh Pirates are the best thing in the city right now. They are off to a 5-1 start, their best since 1983, and look to continue the momentum into their home-opening series against Baltimore this weekend.

The hope for a playoff push is expected to be led by the hitting core of Bryan Reynolds, Oneil Cruz and Ke’Bryan Hayes.

Reynolds, extended in April last season, rewarded the team with 24 home runs, a .790 OPS and stellar defense in the outfield last season. The hope for him is to continue to build on that and take the next step as the team’s top hitter.

Cruz is the big wild card on the team as he returns from a fractured fibula that kept him out for all but nine games in 2023. The 6-foot 7-inch shortstop boasts huge power potential and elite speed, but it remains to be seen whether he can harness that elite potential and become a cornerstone.

Meanwhile, Hayes is coming off his best season as a professional, winning his first Gold Glove and setting career highs at the plate. He has always had elite glovework but becoming even a 20 home run hitter could launch Hayes into stardom.

The core is joined by a good mix of high-potential prospects and steady veterans. Leading the prospect side is 2021 first overall pick Henry Davis, who slots in behind the plate. Davis played right field in Pittsburgh last season but has flashed at catcher this young season. He also brings a .947 career minor league OPS to the plate.

The veterans are led by Pittsburgh icon Andrew McCutchen, currently sitting at 299 home runs. At 37-years-old, his biggest contributions should come when he leads a young clubhouse. He can also step up to be a strong bat against left-handers. The team also brought in first baseman Rowdy Tellez to provide stability for this young roster.

For the starting rotation, things are completely different, with 2023 All-Star Mitch Keller as the only returner. The rest of the rotation will be filled by a mix of prospects and veterans.

On Keller’s side, the right-hander was extended in February through the 2028 season. The team is expecting him to become their ace, and his 210 strikeouts last season prove that he has the potential to be that guy.

The Pirates brought in left-handed veterans Martín Pérez and Marco Gonzales, to supplement Keller. Pérez, a 2022 All-Star, arrives after winning a World Series with Texas last season while Gonzales went from Seattle to Atlanta before being traded to Pittsburgh for a player to be named later. Both are expected to be innings-eaters and mentors for the younger pitchers.

The prospect side of the rotation is where much of the excitement about the 2024 Pittsburgh Pirates resides. Jared Jones is the team’s No. 3 prospect, and he made his debut Saturday against Miami, going 5.2 innings with 10 strikeouts.

However, the most buzz is around Paul Skenes, No. 1 Pirates prospect and No. 3 prospect in all of baseball. Skenes was selected first overall out of LSU last July and is already starting this season in Triple-A Indianapolis. He is expected to make his debut sometime in 2024.

With a fastball touching 102 mph and a wipeout slider/changeup combo, it would not be surprising to see him become a Cy Young Award contender within the next five years.

Additionally, the team could also see the debuts of No. 4 prospect left-hander Anthony Solometo and No. 7 prospect Braxton Ashcraft, but that would most likely come in the bullpen this season.

Speaking of the bullpen, this is the projected strength of this Pirate team this season. David Bednar continues to be elite in his closer role. He will also be supplemented by Aroldis Chapman, who won a ring with Texas last season. To set up those two, Colin Holderman, Ryan Borucki and Carmen Mlodzinski expect to be key middle relievers. All finished with ERAs below 4.00 last season.

Considering the lack of talent in the National League Central this season, it is reasonable to hope that the Pirates can stay in the division race throughout the season, rather than flame out when the weather warms up this summer. The pitching is a strength, so this team can only go as far as the bats can take them. It’s worked out so far this year, and one can only hope things continue to trend positively this season in the Steel City.