Determining Success Criteria for the Pittsburgh Pirates

How does Pittsburgh get us interested in their existence again?

Our Flag Means Death. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Every single iteration of Peter Pan. The Pittsburgh Pirates for half a century. For whatever reason, pirate tales never seem to end the way we want them to. The genre has its moments, to be sure. The first Pirates of the Caribbean is an elite work, released years before the lead became too problematic and the plots went completely off the rails. The other is Muppet Treasure Island. Tim Curry with puppets is a winning formula.

These are mere moments, of course, over the span of almost a century spent on the high seas. If you’re a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, you’d probably take such a moment at this point. However fleeting it may ultimately be.

But 2024 has brought a bit of renewed optimism in the Steel City. The Pirates started off decent enough last year before the length of the season and some injuries caught up to them. However, the start of this year is better and the vibes along with it. That said, nobody has championship aspirations for this club quite yet; maybe not even postseason ones.

The idea of success is, in itself, subjective. To a point, at least. If it were objective, then only one team in Major League Baseball each year would have a successful season. There are folks who subscribe to that ideology, of course. Anything less than a title is a failure. However, given the complexities associated with baseball in particular, it’s truly difficult to maintain such a belief. Growth, development, and establishing consistent & effective practices at all levels of an organization have to be taken into account.

As such, what would need to happen in order for us to deem the 2024 Pittsburgh Pirates a success?


“You are without a doubt the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of.”


Pittsburgh’s last time with a winning record was 2018, a year which also represented the only time since 2015 that they did so (82-79). Since that playoff berth in 2015, when they won 98 games, the Bucs have gone a combined 522-670. They finished last in the National League Central — a division not known for its prowess in the broader MLB standings context — four straight seasons. Two of those included 100 losses.

While 2023 wasn’t quite as bad as some of the others in recent history, it was largely more of the same for Pittsburgh. They were 22nd in runs (662), 21st in on-base percentage (.315), and 22nd in ISO (.153). They also featured the ninth-highest strikeout rate (24.0 percent) in baseball. On the bump, they were 20th in K/9 (8.58), 25th in BB/9 (3.75), and 22nd in whole staff ERA (4.61). They were also in the top half of the league in hard contact allowed (33.1 percent). The defense was, at least, merely average. They sat 15th in Fielding Run Value (2) & Outs Above Average (1) and 18th in Defensive Runs Saved (3).

As for divisional opponents, Milwaukee can still hang, even after getting younger. The Cubs made marginal improvements and boast one of the league’s top farm systems. St. Louis added rotation depth to an offense that wasn’t their issue in 2023. And few teams are as quickly on the come-up as Cincinnati. While the collective strength of the division isn’t anything too cumbersome, you do wonder about their ability to legitimately compete among that group of five in the short term.


“If you were waiting for the opportune moment, that was it.”


Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, they did little to actually compensate for their shortcomings on paper and further any reason for hope. They added Martín Pérez and Marco Gonzales to the rotation. They added Rowdy Tellez to hold down first base. Michael A. Taylor in center. Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen. Edward Olivares will get some time at the outfield and spell Andrew McCutchen as the designated hitter. These moves absolutely help on the margins. But the needle doesn’t move with a handful of barely replacement-level names, especially when your public perception is one that refuses to spend in order to legitimately improve the on-field product.

Even if you wanted to refer to such movement as an “effort” in improving the big league club, Pittsburgh still ranks 29th in payroll among MLB teams. They came into the year with a total payroll a shade under $85 million, ahead of only Oakland. Not that this should serve as a surprise. They were 28th in payroll in 2021, 2022, and 2023. There’s an outright refusal to spend in order to capitalize on one of the weaker divisions in the sport.


“The problem is not the problem.”


As much as we’d love to expound on the merits of using actual dollars to improve your ballclub, this is just standard operating procedure for the Pittsburgh Pirates. To their (slight) credit, they did extend Bryan ReynoldsMitch Keller, and Ke’Bryan Hayes in the past two years. And according to essentially all outlets, they feature a Top 10 farm system in Major League Baseball. So while it would certainly be neat for them to make more of a tangible effort toward “competitive,” it seems a fool’s errand to expect that.

Digression notwithstanding, the ultimate question here is not whether the Pirates should use financial resources to improve their team. It’s clear that this organization has strong pieces in place, and their farm ensures that they should have reinforcements on the way in being able to strengthen their developing “core.” Because of that, this is about what needs to be reflected in the 2024 iteration of the team in order to deem the season a success.

After all, rebuilds aren’t linear. The tank-and-build-back-up via for-prospects trades & the draft is far from a surefire strategy. Pittsburgh has parlayed their recent futility into high draft picks and prospect acquisition. But not everyone is Arizona. Some teams are Cincinnati. Others are Colorado. Although there is little similarity regarding recent rebuilds/retools around the league, there is, perhaps, some guidance to be found in their rebuild/retool/lower-end-of-payroll compatriots around the league.


“The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”


Even with that lack of similarity, there are at least a few comparisons to be made between the aims of the Pirates and those of other recent rebuilds. It’s difficult to compare them to a team like Colorado or Miami. It would be more difficult still to look at a team like Cleveland or Kansas City. These teams have traded position players or relief arms in hopes of adding more to their respective systems, sure. And the lack of spending across the board screams “Pittsburgh Pirates.” But those teams vary in the quality of the farm, their ability to develop said farm, and clarity of whatever their actual aims may be.

Instead, the aforementioned Reds & Diamondbacks represent perhaps the most logical options in determining a 2024 success criteria for the Pirates. The Reds showcased a 20-win improvement from 2023 to ’24. They restarted their rebuild somewhere in the middle of it. They also routinely sit bottom-1o in payroll. Similarly, the Snakes slithered rather listlessly in an uber-competitive division and were 25th in payroll prior to launching themselves to a National League pennant last year.

In 2022, the Cincinnati Reds (22nd in payroll) went 62-100. They were 23rd in the league in runs scored, struck out at a top 10 clip, and walked at a rate in the bottom 10. While their pitchers were able to strike out opposing hitters, they walked more batters than anyone and featured the 28th-ranked ERA across the league. Their wave of prospects brought more power and more speed as they remained in the ’23 wild card chase until the bitter end.

While not quite as dire, the ’22 Diamondbacks were 74-88, sitting middle-of-the-pack in most offensive categories and below average on the mound. Without much roster turnover, the arrival of Corbin Carroll sparked their offense, with a similarly average approach resulting in more runs thanks to the excellent speed of their roster and pitching that was improved around the margins. They ended up with 10 more wins than the previous version.

The comparisons aren’t perfect, but they were never going to be. The important thing is that both seasons were deemed successes in their own right, even if only one of those clubs ended up playing October baseball.

Cincinnati featured a host of top prospects, from an elite farm, cracking the top level on both sides of the ball. They ran on pure vibes for an extensive stretch thanks to that youth, with some supplementary moves made over the winter in hopes of furthering their postseason prospects. Arizona obviously reached the season’s last series, addressing their own shortcomings with a handful of key offseason transactions. Both featured young talent mixed with a very small handful of veterans in getting their stock — and narrative — to land in a much more favorable light.


“Sea turtles, mate.”


It’s a similar formula for the Pittsburgh Pirates to follow in 2024. With those trajectories in mind, it almost seems as if the goal of the Pirates should be to demonstrate enough development that the team will actually invest where they need to. Young players positioned to realize upside? Check. Small veteran additions? Check. Upper tier minor league system? Check again. The Bucs are positioned to replicate the pattern of their NL counterparts if they can showcase growth, both statistically and in the broader standings.

And based on what we’ve seen thus far, there’s reason to believe such growth is possible. As of this writing, they’re 9-2 and are coming off a series win against a legitimate title contender in Baltimore. They’re walking at the league’s third-highest rate (11.3 percent) and reaching base at the same rank thanks to that approach. Their ISO & HardHit% each fall in the middle of the league. On the mound, they’re not walking hitters and are getting the ball on the ground (45.1 percent). Given their solid defensive composition, that’s a path to sustained success, even without a bevy of overpowering arms on staff.

Their offseason additions are performing steadily thus far, in Pérez & Gonzales. Jared Jones brings a high-power presence that the rotation otherwise lacked. Now healthy, Oneil Cruz looks like a budding star to compound with Hayes on the infield. Taylor & Tellez look like worthy additions given their own hot starts. That’s not to say that this will continue. But if we’re measuring success by an overall increase in wins and improvement in the statistical rankings, the trajectory is there for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Sprinkle in a young foundation ready to move the team forward, and it’s there.

Don’t forget, this team was at exactly .500 and in the postseason mix at the end of May last year. Success looks like progression. That’s the simplest way to put it. Not fading out of relevance in the standings is one way to measure it. Especially since a playoff appearance isn’t required. Merely moving forward in the standings (by 10 games or so, if we’re to measure them against recent success stories) and avoiding the bottom third of the league in their performance should be enough to catapult this team back to relevance.

Randy Holt

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Pitcher List & a depth charts analyst for Baseball Prospectus. He's a self-identified Cubs fan who has become more agnostic, instead obsessing about quality defensive baseball wherever he can find it. Randy has a sport management degree from the University of Florida, as well as degrees from Embry-Riddle & Arizona State. When not wasting away on the husk of Twitter/X, Randy is a high school English teacher & a baseball and golf coach.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Account / Login