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The Pittsburgh Pirates need to finish the 2023 regular season with a flourish

The Pirates just swept the lowly Royals in a three-game series at historic Kauffman Stadium.

The Pirates went into Kansas City with a 58-73 record and were scuffling fairly significantly, losing four of their last five games–including three of four to the Cubs at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the sweep of the Royals could act as a launching point for these young Buccos to end their 2023 campaign with a flourish?

This was what happened in 1987 when a young Pirates team was mired in last place in the National League Eastern Division.

The basement was a familiar dwelling for the Pirates back then, as they had finished in last place three straight years between 1984 and 1986. It looked like the ’87 team was destined for the cellar for a fourth-straight season, following a three-game sweep at the hands of the Braves in Atlanta that dropped them to 53-71 on August 23.

The mid-’80s were a time of major upheaval for Pittsburgh’s professional baseball organization. The Pirates were Ground Zero for an infamous drug scandal that rocked Major League Baseball in 1985. Also, the team almost relocated to a new city, a move that was only thwarted by an ownership change led by a public/private consortium.

In addition to all of that, Syd Thrift was hired as the new general manager, and Jim Leyland became the new field manager, taking the place of the recently fired Chuck Tanner.

The Pirates’ roster saw a major transition throughout the mid-80s, as the organization was forced to start over after the tremendous success of the 1970s left the farm system barren. By ’87, young and promising players–including Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke, Doug Drabek, Sid Bream, R.J. Reynolds, Mike Lavalliere and Jim Gott–became fixtures in Pittsburgh’s lineup and on its pitching staff.

But while the roster was now young and promising, the results on the field were the same old Buccos.

That all seemed to change after Gott, a relief pitcher and, at 27, an emerging leader in the Pirates young clubhouse, organized a team meeting following the sweep in Atlanta. With 38 games left in the season, the goal was simple: Win 25 to close things out.

The Pirates promptly won 15 of their next 18 games–including two stretches of seven in a row–and became a bit of a story nationally. Pittsburgh actually bested its goal by winning 27 of 38 to finish with an 80-82 record and in a tie for fourth place in the NL East.

The Pirates had finally climbed out of the cellar. Not only that, but this run to close out the ’87 season was considered to be a catalyst for 1988. It was. Pittsburgh parlayed its late-season momentum into a second-place finish the following year. After a bumpy 1989 campaign in which key injuries hampered the team and led to a fifth-place record, the 1990 Pirates, with those ’87 members acting as the core, won the NL East title for the first time in 11 years. Most of that core would stay intact, as the Buccos won three-straight division titles through the 1992 season.

It all started with a clubhouse meeting late in the ’87 campaign.

The 2023 Pirates need a similar season-ending flourish in order to get their fans to buy into 2024 and beyond.

Following a baseball revival that saw a return to the postseason for three-straight seasons in the mid-2010s, Pittsburgh, now a member of the National League Central Division, has finished in last place three years in a row. After posting a 19-41 record during the shortened COVID campaign, the Buccos lost 101 and 100 games in 2021 and 2022, respectively.

In the meantime, the Pirates transitioned from Neal Huntington to Ben Cherrington as general manager, while Derek Shelton replaced Clint Hurdle as the field manager.

Just like at the onset of Huntington’s regime in the late-’00s, Cherrington was forced to gut the system and start over, thus the three-straight last-place finishes.

But 2023 was supposed to be different.

With Bryan Reynolds, Ke’Bryan Hayes and the freakishly athletic Oneil Cruz leading the way, the Pirates were expected to take a step forward this season.

If you go by their current record, and what figures to be a 70-plus win season, they have. Unfortunately, most of the heavy lifting to get to 61-73 was done over the first month of the season, when these Buccos, led by veterans such as Rich Hill, Carlos Santana, Connor Joe and the returning Andrew McCutchen, jumped out to a 20-8 record. Reality quickly set in, and the Pirates, gradually transitioning from a youngster/veteran consortium to the second-youngest roster in baseball, have posted a record of 41-65 since April 30.

The Pirates are now in the hands of a very young roster. Reynolds, 28, is one of the leaders of the team. Henry Davis, the number one overall pick in the 2021 MLB Draft, finally got called up. It’s been a mixed bag for Davis, who is currently on the 10-day IL. Ji Hwan Bae, 23, has had a rollercoaster but promising rookie season as both a centerfielder and second baseman. Jack Suwinski, 24, leads the team in home runs with 22, but he also leads in strikeouts with 145. Nick Gonzalez, Endy Rodriguez, and Liover Peguero, 22, are also part of the influx of young talent that has contributed to these 2023 Pirates and figures to be a part of their immediate future.

Starting pitcher Mitch Keller, 27, is having his best season after years of struggle. David Bednar, 28, is one of the premier closers in baseball.

Pittsburgh just selected Paul Skenes, a starting pitcher with a 100-plus mile-per-hour fastball, first overall in the 2023 amateur draft.

Skenes is expected to join Keller as part of the Pirates five-man starting rotation as soon as next season.

What should we expect of these Pirates in 2024? It’s hard to say. Part of the problem, a problem that has yet to be mentioned in this article, is the uncertainty of Cruz, who suffered a broken ankle on April 10, had surgery the next day, and has yet to be cleared to return to the Pirates lineup. A 6’7″ shortstop blessed with power and blazing speed, Cruz was expected to be the centerpiece of Pittsburgh’s lineup in 2023. Everything was designed around Cruz.

Without Cruz for basically the entire season, it’s hard to say what these Pirates can be moving forward. Is Cruz a leadoff hitter? Is he more of a cleanup or No. 3 hitter? Would a youngster like Davis benefit from batting between Cruz and Reynolds? Would Suwinski have nearly as many strikeouts if Cruz was batting anywhere near him in the starting lineup?

For that matter, is Cruz as good as advertised? And will he ever be as good as we thought following such a serious injury?

Even without Cruz, it would be nice to see these Pirates figure out who their key players will be heading into 2024. I think it’s important that they identify a core of young guys and run them out there on a nightly basis over the final month.

I  also think it’s vital that these young Pirates finish strong and give themselves momentum and confidence moving forward.

It would be nice if the fans had a young and growing Pirates team to be excited about for 2024.

After all, a baseball fan can only hear about a promising farm system for so long.

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