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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1. Mitch Keller

This was a no-brainer for me. But there are far fewer concerns about performance here than there are with Davis or Cruz. The Pirates' ace, who recently signed the largest contract the organization has ever given to a pitcher, has a 3.84 FIP in 353.1 innings spanning the past two seasons. But this isn't really about Mitch Keller.

Should he get hurt, this pitching staff would not represent that of a competitive ballclub. The Pirates have been ravaged by elbow injuries in the recent past (JT Brubaker, Vince Velasquez, and Mike Burrows last year, Johan Oviedo over the offseason, and Dauri Moreta this spring). None of that directly correlates to Keller, but pitcher injuries have been a common theme recently, and they're not currently built to withstand that if it were to happen to Keller.

The only other starting pitchers who are currently shoo-ins for the rotation are Martin Perez and Marco Gonzales. Perez lost his spot in the Rangers' rotation midseason last year after beginning his season with a 4.98 ERA in 20 starts. Gonzales pitched to a 5.22 ERA before suffering a season-ending nerve injury in his forearm that required surgery. Both have fine track records as MLB starters but neither should be anywhere near the top of a rotation.

Other rotation options include Roansy Contreras, Luis Ortiz, and Quinn Priester. All three entered 2023 as potential future top-of-the-rotation arms, yet all three struggled badly in Pittsburgh. That trio combined to post a 6.10 ERA in 205 innings in the majors in 2023. Not much confidence to be found here either.

Non-roster candidates include Chase Anderson, Wily Peralta, Eric Lauer, and the recently-signed Domingo German. Anderson started 17 games for the Rockies last year with an ERA of 5.75. He hasn't posted even league-average numbers since 2019. Peralta had a 6.31 ERA in 24 starts last season...for Triple-A Rochester. Lauer battled injuries all throughout 2023 but posted an ERA of 3.47 across the prior two seasons. Neither Lauer nor German are expected to be ready for Opening Day.

And who knows when the kids will be up? This question might be moot, given how the Pirates' young pitchers have developed in recent years. Still, the pitching prospects the Pirates currently possess in the upper levels is significant.

Paul Skenes is one of the best pitching prospects ever, and that being said, I don't think the Pirates can fumble the bag that badly with him. But he's not stretched out to start yet (he hasn't pitched longer than two innings in an outing since last year's College World Series in June) and likely won't see a major league mound until summer.

The other noteworthy prospect under consideration is Jared Jones. According to multiple reports, and despite not having any major league experience, he is a legitimate candidate for a spot in the Opening Day rotation. He dominated his first taste of Double-A last year before finishing the year at Triple-A Indianapolis, pitching to a 3.85 ERA and striking out 27.6 percent of opposing hitters between both levels. He's had an incredible spring, pitching 11.1 innings across five outings without surrendering a run. Jones is a consensus top-100 prospect with a 70-grade fastball and 60-grade slider, according to Baseball America.

The Pirates were in prime position to use some of their pitching prospects to trade for a bona fide major league pitcher this winter. They chose not to. With that being the case, they better hope they can develop some of these young pitchers, and they sure better hope Mitch Keller can stay on the mound and continue to grow as he has the past two seasons.