It’s hard to say at this point how competitive the Pirates will be in 2018.

If the first two weeks of the season are to be believed, this could be similar to their 2013 season, where it’s their first year of contending and making the playoffs for the current window.

If the last week is to be believed, this could be like the 2012 season, where they’re close to making the playoffs, and technically contenders, but just not there yet.

Regardless of where they are in 2018, I think one positive is that the majority of this team, especially the key players, are together for several years, which means that this team can grow together and receive additions along the way to make them stronger.

Of the regular starting pitchers and position players, Jordy Mercer is the only guy who is eligible for free agency following the 2018 season. Sean Rodriguez is the only bench/bullpen guy in that classification.

Francisco Cervelli, Corey Dickerson, and Ivan Nova are the only guys who are eligible for free agency following the 2019 season. David Freese and George Kontos join that group from the bench/bullpen guys. Josh Harrison could be a special exception here, under control through 2020, but with options in 2019 and 2020 that could shorten his time with the team.

Beyond those guys, most of the key players on the roster are under control through 2021 or beyond.

Perhaps one of the most encouraging things early in the season has been that the replacements for the guys above have been performing very well, showing that the Pirates might not miss a beat when they eventually move on to other players.

Alan Saunders wrote yesterday about the success that Elias Diaz was having early this year. The Pirates need Diaz to do well. They don’t have an internal replacement for Cervelli, and while they can roll with Cervelli next season, they will need someone to take over after 2019. Looking through their minor league system, from top to bottom, I don’t see a single option who could take over as a starter.

Jacob Stallings might emerge as a good backup, but I’m skeptical that his offense this year, or his offense in his brief time in the majors, will carry over full-time when considering his larger career profile. Christian Kelley is another guy who has a shot at being a strong defensive guy, but the offense has lagged behind. And in the lower levels the hopes sit on guys like Deon Stafford or Samuel Inoa, with both likely to still be as high as A-ball in 2019.

The Pirates need Diaz to emerge as a starting option, and the early results from him have been encouraging enough to think that he could take on that role.

The shortstop position isn’t as dire in terms of prospect depth. The Pirates have guys like Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer in the upper levels. Max Moroff can play the position, although I don’t see him as more than a backup.

Kramer and Newman are off to slow starts in Indianapolis, although there’s a chance one of them could be ready by the end of the season to take over for Mercer. Either way, they’re going to be a placeholder for Cole Tucker, who I wrote about yesterday. Tucker is off to a great start in Altoona, hitting for an .862 OPS, and if this continues, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in Triple-A by mid-season, with an outside chance to reach the majors this year.

The Pirates have replacements doing well at other positions. Austin Meadows isn’t tearing up Triple-A yet, but he’s improving on last year’s numbers, and could easily be ready to take over by the time Dickerson is ready to leave. Mitch Keller is tearing up Double-A, and could be up by the end of the year, which will more than fill any pitching needs left by Nova. And Moroff could emerge as an option for second base if the team moves on from Harrison early, with Kevin Kramer looking like the better long-term option there.

There have been some encouraging signs at the MLB level showing that the Pirates are close to contending. That may happen this year, or it might have a better chance of happening next year. Perhaps the most encouraging thing of all is that they are getting big prospect performances from the key guys who are set to replace the few players slated to leave the MLB team in the next year or two. That could only improve their chances of contending going forward in the current window.

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