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Pirates aren’t contenders but they’re still worthy of attention

Milwaukee Brewers v Pittsburgh Pirates

Photo: Lauren Leigh Bacho / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images

After further review, it appears the Pirates won’t be able to conjure up a “Freak Show” repeat after all.

They’re still building much more than they are contending, but at least they’ve been fun to watch more often than not.

Although 41-49 through 90 games was a disappointment in the wake of 20-8 through the first 28, the Pirates are clearly onto something.

Whether they’re capable of completing the team-building process that’s perceptibly been taking place remains to be seen.

But they’re still interesting if not relevant, and that’s progress.

Following is a quick look back at what we’ve seen and look ahead to what might continue to be worthy of attention, even after the start of Steelers camp:

Better Than Advertised: Carlos Santana, Rich Hill, Andrew McCutchen

Santana has started to rediscover some anticipated pop at the plate of late. But even when he hasn’t been raking he’s been hustling and playing stellar defense at first base.

Hill has as many wins (seven) as Shohei Ohtani and more than Blake Snell (six), Yu Darvish (five) and Sonny Gray (four), among others. Even at 43, Hill is still a professional, credible, give-his-team-a-chance-to-win starter much more often than not.

McCutchen has been an inspiration for the fan base and for the team. His return has been a feel-good story and he’s also contributed significantly on the field and, presumably, to the Bucs’ keep-battling culture (as, one suspects, have Hill and Santana).

It’s been refreshing to watch professionals at work.

Biggest Disappointments: Roansy Contreras, Luis Ortiz

Both were perceived, potentially, as part of the solution after flashing intriguing potential last season.

Instead, both have been part of the problem.

Neither is in the Major Leagues at present.

Contreras has been so bad he’s been banished to something called the Florida Complex League.

Good But Not Good Enough: Bryan Reynolds, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Jack Suwinski

All three have had their moments. But all three, for various reasons, have also left a lot of meat on the bone.

How close the Pirates come to emerging as a legitimate postseason contender looking ahead to 2024 will have a great deal to do with how much Reynolds, Hayes and Suwinski can improve during the 2023 season’s unofficial second half.

MVP: David Bednar

He’s an elite closer, and a team intent on emerging as a legitimate postseason contender sooner rather than later is going to need one of those. Trading Bednar for prospects would go a long way toward torpedoing any confidence the organization may have been able to regenerate within the fan base through the contract extensions for Hayes and Reynolds, the McCutchen homecoming and, most significantly, the drafting of Paul Skenes.

Second-Half Adjustment: Let Mitch Keller Pitch

The Pirates’ best starter and presumptive emerging ace has been yanked after seven innings of games he was dominating twice in his last four starts. Keller left with leads both times but the Bucs went on to lose both games. That’s gotta change, whether it’s the GM, the analytics department or the manager that needs to do the re-evaluating.

Keller’s 27, in his fifth Major League season and seemingly ready to achieve hammer status on the mound. But he’ll never get there if by design he isn’t permitted to throw more than 99 or 107 pitches, even when he’s dealing.

What’s the point of having a horse if you opt not to ride it when it’s performing like Secretariat?

Most Encouraging Development: The arrivals of Henry Davis and Nick Gonzales

Davis, drafted first overall in 2021, and Gonzales, selected seventh overall in 2020, have become big leaguers this summer and have looked the part. And they’re not the only youngsters who have begun to emerge at the Major League level. It’s time for fellow prospect headliners Endy Rodriguez and Quinn Priester to join the party.

It’s not as if going all-in on the youth movement is going to cost the Pirates a pennant.

Regrets, They have A Few: Oneil Cruz and Vince Velasquez

They probably would have been difference-makers had they not gotten injured. Alas, that’s part of the game. Getting Cruz back for the last month or so would go a long way toward keeping the “feel better” if not the “feel good” percolating no matter what happens in the season’s unofficial second half.

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