All eyes are on the Pirates now - how will they respond?

Even the national media is paying attention to the Pittsburgh Pirates, eagerly awaiting how the team decides to capitalize on having a tantalizing core in a wide open division.
Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates
Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates / Justin Berl/GettyImages

That the Pittsburgh Pirates find themselves 23-28 through the first 51 games of the 2024 season shouldn't come as a huge surprise. But they didn't arrive at that point in a way that many Pirates fans would have expected.

The bullpen, projected to be the team's greatest strength, currently sports the league's fifth-worst ERA and walk rate. That group has been hampered by injuries all year, specifically to Colin Holderman, Carmen Mlodzinski, Ryan Borucki, and Dauri Moreta (the latter comes with a 14-16-month recovery timeline). David Bednar (7.45 ERA, three blown saves) and Aroldis Chapman (4.41 ERA, 20 walks in 16.1 innings) were expected to be lights-out and have largely been anything but.

The lineup showed plenty of promise, leading MLB in home runs during Spring Training, but it has also scuffled. Only five teams are scoring fewer runs per game than the Pirates, who endured a 23-game stretch from mid-April to mid-May during which they scored 49 runs and never scored more than five in any game.

Pretty much every hitter on the roster (except for Connor Joe) has suffered through some sort of slump. Jared Triolo, Jack Suwinski, Michael A. Taylor, Henry Davis, and Rowdy Tellez have combined for 683 plate appearances and a wRC+ of 53 (100 is league average). Davis and Suwinski have both been optioned to Triple-A, and Tellez, essentially a bat-only platoon player, has a wRC+ of - and this is not a typo - 36.

Conversely, the Bucs' starting pitching was projected to be the team's clear weakness - entering the season, there was no obvious stability behind Mitch Keller, and the front office was questioned (and that's putting it in polite terms) for refusing to do more to add to the rotation than trading for Marco Gonzales and signing Martin Perez and Domingo German.

As things currently stand, the Pirates' rotation is 10th in baseball in ERA and 12th in WHIP and has done so while throwing the fifth-most innings. Those are impressive numbers—especially given the expectations coming into the season—and make that group of arms suddenly very valuable. But it's also an intriguing group, thanks to two men in particular: Paul Skenes and Jared Jones.

And they're now the talk of Major League Baseball.

When Baseball America published their in-season Top 100 Prospects, Skenes (who became the sport's top pitching prospect as soon as he was drafted) and Jones (who propelled into the top 10 after his hot start to his MLB career) were the top two pitching prospects, making the Pirates only the second team ever (joining the 2004 Dodgers) to have both of Baseball America's top two pitching prospects (dating back to 1990).

The early results have been nothing short of excellent for Skenes (who is now three starts into his MLB career) and Jones (who is 10 starts in after making the team out of Spring Training). They've combined for a 2.88 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, and 89 strikeouts in 75 innings across 13 starts. Each man has had a start (Jones vs. the Rockies on May 4, Skenes vs. the Cubs on May 17) consisting of at least six shutout innings, only one baserunner allowed, and at least 10 strikeouts.

The hype surrounding these two pitchers—particularly Skenes—has drawn attention on a national level from fans and the media. Jeff Passan and Bob Nightengale (when's the last time either of them watched a whole Pirates game?) were both tuned in to Skenes' debut, and Jake Mintz of Cespedes Family BBQ made the trek to Pittsburgh to witness his debut in person.

Having Skenes and Jones in the fold now has prompted some dialogue among folks who generally don't pay much attention to the Pirates, like Chris Rose and Trevor Plouffe:

...and Ken Rosenthal:

...and JJ Cooper and Geoff Pontes from Baseball America:

The Pirates currently possess an incredible luxury. They have two 22-year-old starting pitchers with 100-MPH fastballs and devastating secondary offerings who have dominated against the sport's highest level of competition. Yet the club sits in fourth place in a relatively weak NL Central and is on pace to lose 89 games.

All three of those clips pose the same question - how will the Pirates take advantage? Even the national media, who always ignore the Pirates and blindly pencil them in for a last-place finish seemingly every season, know they have two really special assets.

They have to change course, at least a little bit. The offense has to be better, and that largely falls on the much-maligned hitting coach, Andy Haines, who was hired for his ability to instill an organization-wide offensive philosophy. Oneil Cruz, Bryan Reynolds, and Ke'Bryan Hayes have been hot-and-cold for a couple years. Henry Davis, Jack Suwinski, and Liover Peguero are in Triple-A. Termarr Johnson, the team's only Top-100 hitting prospect, is hitting .200 and slugging .323 while playing in a hitter's paradise.

The front office has to supplement the current core with more talent, and needs to be aggressive but intelligent. Starting last year, the Pirates supposedly intended to "[shop] in a different part of the store." Last year, that resulted in Carlos Santana, Rich Hill, and Austin Hedges. This year, Aroldis Chapman, Martin Perez, and Michael A. Taylor. Those six players have accumulated a grand total of 1.2 WAR as Pirates.

And this goes without saying, but they need to do better at first base. The Rowdy Tellez experiment should have ended by now. There's no real obvious solution for 2024 - none of Jake Lamb, Malcom Nunez, or Matt Gorski are major league first basemen, and Connor Joe and his .723 career OPS against right-handed pitching isn't fit for a full-time role in the middle of the lineup for a team trying to contend.

But the continual pattern of giving one-year deals to veteran rebound candidates can't continue. Whether they nail the #9 overall draft choice or make an unprecedented kind of commitment to a first baseman in the winter, they have to do something different.

The Pittsburgh Pirates aren't that far away from contention.

The National League is currently weaker than it has been in some time. The Central is pretty open, especially with the Cardinals and Reds also struggling. And despite being 23-28, the Pirates are just three games out of the final Wild Card spot. And once you get to October, anything's possible - in each of the last two seasons, the last team to claim a playoff spot in the NL ended up in the World Series.

One of the best ways to ensure playoff success is with strong starting pitching. The way things look now, a rotation of Paul Skenes, Jared Jones, and Mitch Keller would be tough to beat in a playoff series. But the Pirates need to be serious about doing what it takes to get there. The whole baseball world is more plugged into the Pirates now than they have been in some time, waiting to see what moves they make to take the next step.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have two of the sport's greatest commodities. They can't afford to botch this.