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Pirates look to contend in 2024

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Pirates believe they’ve closed the gap on the teams they’re chasing following a 14-win improvement in 2023 fueled by players that should be lineup fixtures for years to come.

Taking the next step from promising to contending, however, will be far trickier. And they know it.

“We have a clear mind about what’s next and that it’s not easy and not supposed to be easy,” general manager Ben Cherington said Tuesday. “We just all need to do our jobs really well.”

Pittsburgh’s 76-86 was essentially divided into three parts: the auspicious 20-8 start in which everything that could have gone right went right, a 27-39 swoon through May, June and July followed by a 29-28 finish over the final two months in which rookies like right fielder/catcher Henry Davis, catcher Endy Rodriguez, outfielder Josh Palacios and corner infielder Jared Triolo were regular contributors.

“I’m very encouraged with (August and September) because I think not only are we getting better record-wise, we’re playing better baseball but we’re also and this may sound a little different, we’re getting things out of the way,” manager Derek Shelton said.

Things like the kind of “firsts” — be it hit, start, run or error — can serve as a major psychological hurdle for a team with such a young core. When those players arrive in Bradenton for spring training in February, they won’t be consumed with getting to the majors, but staying there and being difference makers.

Third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes solidified his status as one of the best defensive players of his generation and also produced the best offensive season of his young career. Pitcher Mitch Keller and closer David Bednar were All-Stars. Outfielder Bryan Reynolds signed a long-term deal in April, proof of Pittsburgh’s increased commitment to investing in players it believes can push them back toward the top of the NL Central.

Still, there are needs that have to be addressed during the offseason, particularly in the rotation and at first base. Cherington stressed the Pirates — who began 2023 with a payroll of just over $71 million, the third-lowest in the majors — would “have the resources we need to get better and to compete and contend.”

While the focus will be on improving internally with several prospects — including 2023 No. 1 overall pick pitcher Paul Skenes — on the horizon to join those who have already made it to Pittsburgh, the Pirates will supplement with free agents, franchise icon Andrew McCutchen among them.

“Certainly interested in him wearing a Pirates uniform next year,” Cherington said. “That would be a great outcome.”

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