Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Twenty-six men on a half-dead team, yo-ho-ho and a Primanti’s sub.

So goes the timeless Pittsburgh Pirates fan’s refrain whose siren-like echoes have traveled the Three Rivers for over 30 years. Not even three straight Wild Card berths ten years ago brought any hope to the Steel City. The Pirates, one of Major League Baseball’s original franchises full of rich history, are practically a punchline.

An endless ghost ship patrolling the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela, longing for the days of Clemente and Stargell. Bill Mazeroski is alive and well at a ripe 87, yet ghostly in how little his old team acknowledges its past. You’d think a team that played in the inaugural World Series would take more pride in itself.

But here we are ahead of the 2024 season, five years into manager Derek Shelton’s run and, to his credit, he’s done a great job! No, seriously, the Pirates have slowly improved in every season under his watch. They finished fourth in the NL Central last year, but won 76 games. That’s the team’s highest win total since winning 75 in 2017.

Such is the bar for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The fans have grown so used to losing that finishing that close to .500 is practically winning the World Series. Things seem on the upswing now but, knowing owner Bob Nutting, will it last?

Greatest Addition: Edward Olivares. Acquired from the Royals for a minor league infielder in December, Olivares should be thankful to be in a more hitter-friendly park. He hit .264 with a 105 wRC+, slugging 12 home runs in 107 games. Olivares hit too many ground balls, but cut his strikeout rate (K%) down by four points.

At this point, he figures to compete with Connor Joe and Joshua Palacios for a corner outfield spot. Olivares’ poor fielding means his bat must steer the course, and he’s leading the pack with a light .207 average. In a quiet offseason full of short-term deals meant to be moved at the trade deadline, Olivares should at least boost an anemic Pirates lineup.

Greatest Loss: Miguel Andujar. The former Yankees star rookie just can’t catch a break. Andujar went from Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2018 to a season ending injury in 2019 to…just kind of washing out. Gio Urshela’s breakout year with the bat and better glove at third base left Andujar without a clear roster spot in the Bronx, and the Pirates claimed him off waivers near the end of the 2022 season.

Except it was no better for Andujar in Pittsburgh. He hit .250 with four home runs and a .776 OPS in 30 games with the big league club. The rest of the time, he was batting .338 with 16 homers and 86 RBI with a .941 OPS at Triple-A Indianapolis.

Andujar was waived yet again and is now in camp with the Oakland A’s. If batting .406 with four homers in spring training isn’t enough to make the Opening Day roster, then he may want to consider playing overseas.

Greatest Strength: Exciting young players. The Pirates finally seem to have some talent alongside star switch-hitter Bryan Reynolds. Jack Suwinski is looking to build off of a much-improved second season in which he hit just .224, but hit 26 home runs. Third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes seems primed for a big season in which he finally shows off his power, and don’t forget the Pirates also have former No. 1 pick Henry Davis.

Mitch Keller could use some help in the rotation, but it’s on the way in the form of top prospect and reigning No. 1 pick Paul Skenes. The big righty’s fastball touches triple digits and, of course, pairs with a biting slider. He probably won’t debut until much later in 2024, but No. 3 prospect Jared Jones might.

The Pirates aren’t making the playoffs in 2024, but the team is young enough that it can continue improving at a low enough price to maybe, someday, have a better place in the playoff picture.

Greatest Weakness: Bob Nutting. We noted in last year’s preview how Nutting, like Oakland’s John Fisher, seems to just not care about his team. He collects the paycheck, gets involved as needed, that’s it.

Or so we thought.

In a scathing report from Ken Rosenthal and Stephen J. Nesbitt at The Athletic, the Pittsburgh Pirates under Nutting are worse than we could have imagined. Pinching pennies on top of pennies on top of half-cents. Confusing training exercises that make no sense for baseball. Conflicting baseball philosophies everywhere you look, so much that Keller’s improvement didn’t come from working with the Pirates, but rather “an independent pitching lab in North Carolina.”

Even worse is the Pirates fired minor league coach Jon Nunnally, who Hayes credits with his turnaround in the second half last season. As Nunnally told The Athletic, he’ll continue working with Hayes privately. Nothing says success like players completely discarding the organization’s resources.

It can all change if Nutting actually follows other teams’ leads and decides to stop leading Fisher in the Mediocrity Mambo. But let’s be honest, he won’t.

Will the Pittsburgh Pirates spot land in 2024? They might spot it, but they won’t drop anchor and land. Pittsburgh is in the ripe position of having a low payroll and the key talent are either under team control or on team-friendly contracts. For example, Aroldis Chapman draws the highest salary at $10.5 million, but Reynolds isn’t far behind at $10.25 million. Hayes is only earning $7 million, and both his and Reynolds’ contracts run through 2029 and ’30, respectively.

This means that the 2024 season is largely about finding out if Shelton is worth a new contract. If the Pirates can match, surpass, or even come close to their 2023 win total, he’s probably safe. Otherwise, it’s back to the drawing board and hoping Nutting doesn’t arbitrarily hit reset despite his grossly inexpensive roster.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.