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Pirates open regular season with recharged rotation, healthy bats, and a whole bunch of questions

A baseball player swings a bat
Charlie Neibergall
Pittsburgh Pirates' Oneil Cruz fouls a pitch in the fifth inning of a spring training baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in Bradenton, Fla.

When the umpire says "play ball" this afternoon during the Pirates' opening day, the cheers from fans might not echo with the same fever pitch as the early days of last season.

The spring of 2023 was a bright time for the team: Andrew McCutcheon had re-signed with the Bucs and the team racked up 20 wins by the end of April to lead the National League Central Division. The Bucs beat the defending World Series champion Astros in a walk-off win that month and looked like a team that could take the diamond with the best in the league.

But the fireworks that lit up the sky over PNC Park soon fizzled out; the Pirates finished fourth in the Central Division with a lot of unanswered questions about this year's roster.

McCutcheon is back for another season in 2024 and shortstop Oneil Cruz is healthy again after recovering from an ankle injury.

"He looks good. He's movin' around. He's healthy — that's the big thing," said Pirates manager Derek Shelton during spring training. "He's missed so much time that you don't want him to rush through things and he didn't do that."

Cruz is expected to join a starting lineup that includes third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes and outfielder Bryan Reynolds, the lead-off and second batters in the top of the order at the end of last season. Both are under long-term deals with the club.

The Bucs signed eight free agents in the off-season, including pitchers Aroldis Chapman and Martin Perez, and extended their contract with ace starter Mitch Keller.

"Just super excited with the group that we have and the future that's to come," Keller said when the deal was announced.  "I'm mean, it's a really exciting time to be a Pirate."

Keller is slated to take the mound this afternoon when the Pirates play the Marlins, as Pittsburgh sets out on a long-shot bid to topple the reigning division champion Milwaukee.

The Pirates haven't won a division title since 1992. They made it to the National League Championship Series that year but lost a heartbreaker in Game 7 when the Atlanta Braves' Sid Bream beat out a throw to the plate from Bucs' left fielder Barry Bonds.

That play was the start of a long slide into post-season irrelevance for Pittsburgh.

Three decades, three owners, seven managers, and a new ballpark later, the Pirates have made it to the Divisional round of the playoffs only once, in 2013.

Shelton's first season as manager was 2020, and in two of his years with the team, the Pirates had the lowest payroll in all of baseball. No roster fielded by the club during his tenure has posted a winning record.

"One thing that I have learned the most going through the last four years is patience. Last year we took the major step forward in terms of winning 14 more games. Now we need to take the next step forward," Shelton told the MLB Network earlier this year.

For many Pirates fans of a certain age, that word, patience, has worn as thin as their Bucco jerseys and ringer ball caps from the team's World Series championship in 1979.

That was the last time the Pirates helped make Pittsburgh the City of Champions.

Doug Shugarts is a 23-year veteran of broadcast news. Doug began his career at WBUR in Boston, where he worked on the nationally-syndicated programs “The Connection” and “Here and Now.” He won awards for best use of sound, coverage of the 2003 war in Iraq, and helped launch the station’s local news program, “Radio Boston.” In 2014 Doug moved across town to GBH and helped reboot morning news programming and launch other broadcast and web projects. Doug studied Composition at Berklee College of Music and Computer Science and Mathematics at the University of California. A resident of Pittsburgh’s Southside, Doug enjoys feasting on arepas and yucca fries at Cilantro and Ajo and meeting his canine neighbors at Big Dog Coffee.