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What year could Pirates realistically compete?

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What is the ideal target year for Pittsburgh to win again?

Milwaukee Brewers v Pittsburgh Pirates - Game One
Ke’Bryan Hayes and Bryan Reynolds are key pieces to the Pirates future moving forward
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

It’s hard to predict anything in the sports world compared to that outside of it.

The unpredictability of sports creates a limited margin for error in any prediction well over a few weeks old, let alone a year.

Despite this notion, the ultimate game of hope and chance is what makes the unknown enticing and exciting, making you long for more in future seasons.

Predicting when the Pittsburgh Pirates just might extend their arms back over the finish line of the regular season and make the playoffs is difficult, but the franchise may be approaching the beginning of the stretch run of the race.

The promotions of Roansy Contreras and Oneil Cruz during the final week of the 2021 regular season was a brief taste test of 2022’s mid-season roster, with the duo likely beginning in AAA Indianapolis due to service time and previous injury history limiting appearances in the Minors’ final level.

The prospects are going to be the Pirates’ saving grace moving forward, but a look at the current Buccos signals a few players plausible to keep in the thick of things.

Bryan Reynolds and Ke’Bryan Hayes are currently, and should be for the foreseeable future, the key building blocks of Pittsburgh’s next contender, with a fan base banking on General Manager Ben Cherington putting his money where his mouth is and both parties agreeing to extensions already previously discussed, specifically with Hayes.

Reynolds (2026) and Hayes (2027) are under club control for the next four seasons, five for Hayes, and provide a steady diet of defensive excellence with the ability to hit in the middle of the lineup, with Reynolds becoming one of the game’s best all-around center fielders.

The remainder of the club provides numerous question marks and a mix of young players jostling for at-bats and innings. Mitch Keller seems to be back-and-forth each start with his progression, Cole Tucker’s poor plate discipline overshadows his defensive abilities, and Kevin Newman struggles to find consistency at the plate.

The only players who could realistically move the needle and remain in the Black and Gold are David Bednar and potentially Jacob Stallings.

Stallings, 31, is under contract through the 2024 season and just earned his first Rawlings Gold Glove while continuing to improve behind the plate every season after being a virtual unknown. He could remain with the Pirates and does hold a clutch gene for walkoffs, despite only hitting .246 in 2021.

A local product from Mars, Bednar could be the emotional connection to the city similar to what Pine-Richland native Neil Walker was during the 2013-2015 playoff stretches. The lights-out closer continued to improve with his wipeout slider on full display, and with Renegade as his entry song, PNC could soon come back to life in the 9th inning in a way it hasn’t since Mark “The Shark” Melancon occupied the shark tank.

The most exciting portion of looking ahead is who is yet to come to Pittsburgh, with eager anticipation of their highly thought of debuts.

Cherington has built a top five, arguably top three, farm system in the entire sport off the back of savvy trades and manipulating the draft bonus pool.

Quinn Priester (2), Nick Gonzales (4), Liover Peguero (5), and Carmen Mlodzinski (10) should all arrive in Pittsburgh, between mid-2022 to the latter half of 2023, barring a serious injury.

Catcher Henry Davis, the organization’s first No. 1 overall pick in 10 years and top prospect according to MLB Pipeline, could skyrocket through the system and join the group in 2023 due to his age and strength at the plate.

Add in Mason Martin, Matt Frazier, the frequently forgotten Travis Swaggerty, Tahnaj Thomas, and other role players, and the next Pirates contender begins to mold and takes shape.

The success of High-A Greensboro and Low-A Bradenton could set a precedent for a new winning culture growing with the individual success of players advancing through the Minors.

Signing free agents and making smart trades to supplement the roster will be critical factors of getting back 2015. Guys like A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ, Edinson Volquez, Marlon Byrd, Jung Ho Kang; Sean Rodriguez, and others each had moments to remember, for numerous reasons, and helped propel the club to October. An Andrew McCutchen reunion is unlikely but would make for one of the best sports stories in Pittsburgh history if Cutch could take the Pirates to the promised land.

Player development will also be a major factor moving forward. With a large amount of the top players in High-A or AA, 2024 is more realistic to shoot for a playoff spot than 2023. The anticipated addition of the DH to the National League could also add an additional wrinkle to the Pirates’ plans, either a power hitter like Mason Martin or a rotation of position players receiving a day off from the field.

The next few seasons are going to be exciting for Pirates fans with the arrow beginning to point up in the right direction despite finishing with the fourth-worst record in Major League Baseball.

2023 is a good target date to have the team in place, with most pieces earning a promotion during the season, 10 years after the Pirates broke the streak of 20-straight losing seasons in 2013.

2024 is probably the most realistic to spark a new culture wave through Pittsburgh.

If it works, Cherington will be praised. If it fails, back to the drawing board. But this new and present picture is a new hope fans should be ready to jump on board.