Unlikely division challenger's early-season success puts Reds, NL Central on notice

The Bucs are off to a hot-start thanks to their pitching.
Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher David Bednar
Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher David Bednar / Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to the start of the season, many of the pundits and so-called experts were focused on one of three teams taking home the NL Central crown in 2024. The choices were between the up-and-coming Cincinnati Reds, the Chicago Cubs with new manager Craig Counsell, or the veteran-laden St. Louis Cardinals.

Nobody assumed that the Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers would be battling for NL Central supremacy. Let's face it, Pittsburgh hasn't been relevant since Andrew McCutcheon was in the MVP conversation (2013-2015), and Milwaukee traded their ace (Corbin Burnes) and lost their best reliever (Devin Williams) to injury.

But the Buccos and the Brew Crew are both off to a hot-start at the outset of the 2024 season. While the Brewers have seem some clutch hitting from some of their young stars, the Pirates have surprised almost everyone with their top-notch pitching performance so far this season.

Pirates' early-season success puts Reds, NL Central on notice

The Reds added Frankie Montas and Nick Martinez to a rotation that already boasted the young arms of Hunter Greene, Andrew Abbott, Graham Ashcraft, and Nick Lodolo. The Cubs began the year with Cy Young candidate Justin Steele and free agent acquisition Shōta Imanaga. The Cardinals raided the free agent market early by signing 2023 Cy Young-finalist Sonny Gray as well as seasoned veterans Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn.

But it's been the Pirates' pitchers who've started off the 2024 campaign with a bang. The Pirates have the best ERA (3.48) in the National League and the lowest WHIP (1.14).

It's been a balance of both starters and relievers that are contributing to the Bucs' early-season success. Only the Philadelphia Phillies starting rotation has a better team-ERA than the Pirates, and Pittsburgh's relief corps owns the fourth-best ERA in the NL just behind the Cardinals, Washington Nationals and New York Mets. The Pirates' bullpen has kept opponents hitting just .208 during the first few weeks of the 2024 season.

Will the Pirates be the Reds' biggest threat to winning the NL Central in 2024?

The Pirates' rotation, outside of Mitch Keller, is not made up of a bunch of household names. Martin Perez has had big league success in the past, but no one really expected the veteran to won a sub-2.00 ERA this season. The Buccos are also getting solid contributions from Marco Gonzalez and Jared Jones.

And Pittsburgh is having success despite All-Star closer David Bednar's dreadful start. The reliever owns a 10.13 ERA and has blown three saves this season. Former Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, who's now in the Pirates' pen, has blanked the opposition, allowing just a .059 batting average against.

Don't look now, Reds fans, but the NL Central is shaping up to be one of the most competitive divisions in baseball this season. Everyone assumed the Cubs and Cardinals would be the biggest threats to the Reds in 2024, but it may end up being the Pirates and the Brewers.

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