These three players can make or break the Pirates' 2024 season

The Pirates likely won't be able to make a run in 2024 without significant contributions from all three of these players

Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates
Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates / Joe Sargent/GettyImages
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3. Oneil Cruz

You can probably count on one hand how many players have as much raw talent as the Pirates' shortstop. His immense talents are well-documented - in 2022, when he appeared in 87 of his 98 career games, he finished in the 90th percentile or higher in each of the following statistics: average exit velocity, barrel rate, arm strength, sprint speed, and baserunning Run Value.

It might not be fair to even try to put a ceiling on what Cruz could accomplish in a season. He has legitimate 40-40 potential, and even stated his desire to achieve that goal before the 2023 season.

A 40-homer season is definitely in play; he's Spring Training's current home run leader and the owner of the hardest-hit ball ever recorded, and his career MLB homer output (even while struggling to adjust to MLB pitching) prorates to 31 long balls in a 162-game season. His ankle injury likely will limit his aggressiveness on the basepaths, at least in the short term, but the skillset is still there, and he just recently described his ankle as being at "200 percent."

Cruz's struggles to this point in his career have come in two primary areas - plate discipline and throwing accuracy. His career strikeout rate against right-handed pitching is a touch high but still manageable at 26 percent. But against southpaws, it's a ghastly 51.6 percent. He destroys the ball when he makes contact, but needs to make significant improvements to his swing decisions.

And as for his arm, the strength is plus-plus, but the accuracy is an issue. Since 2021, 62 players have logged at least 500 innings at shortstop. Cruz's throwing error rate (throwing errors / throwing errors plus assists) is the sixth-highest at 4.49 percent, and everyone above him no longer plays shortstop. In 2022, The Fielding Bible registered Cruz's arm at minus-two runs saved despite his arm being (at the time) comfortably the strongest across the entire league at the position.

Between winter ball, Spring Training, and his nine games pre-ankle injury last season, Cruz appeared to show improvement in both of those areas, displaying a more disciplined eye at the plate as well as improved and smoother footwork at shortstop. Here's hoping a lost season of development doesn't completely negate the progress he made in those areas.

From April 10 (the day after Cruz's ankle injury) through the end of the season, Pittsburgh's shortstops slashed .239/.315/.390, good for a 90 wRC+ that topped only three teams in that span. Should Cruz miss significant time again, Liover Peguero, the current favorite to win the second base job and notable contributor to those aforementioned numbers, would likely slide over to take his place. Peguero has had a nice spring and should take a step forward in 2024, but the Pirates would once again sorely miss Cruz's bat.