An Outfield Made of “Ifs” In Pittsburgh   

There is nothing anyone can say to make a fan feel better when their team trades away good players to begin a rebuild – even a soft rebuild. The Pirates just traded one of their best players – Starling Marte – for prospects, without a really great plan to replace him and that is after finishing last in the NL Central and losing 93 games last season. If they were tearing it down to the studs and enacting a hard rebuild, then it might be easier to understand because it is understood that everything must go in a full rebuild. But the way the Pirates are acting feels like they have been directionless and are now starting to rebuild by a thousand paper cuts with this move being a fairly large slash to the hamstring. The Pirates still have some dudes to run out there and provide some excitement but they definitely just got worse for 2020 and since the two prospects the Pirates got back – Brennan Malone and Liover Peguero – are both 19 and haven’t played at a level higher than short season A-ball, it will be at least two seasons before they benefit from giving up Marte. In the meantime, here comes the 2020 season and someone has to take Marte’s spot in the outfield, so let’s take a look at what Pirate fans have to look forward to, aside from a fun ballpark and a great city.

One guy to be excited about last season was Bryan Reynolds. Reynolds was a second round pick in 2016 and a good prospect, but not many people thought he would produce 131 wRC+ in his Major League debut. Reynolds slashed .314/.377/.503 with 16 homers and played poor or decent defense in all three outfield spots depending on what metric you like best, although the metrics agreed that Reynolds played well in right. One number to watch is his BABIP which was very high (.387) in 2019. Normally that would portend a pretty big crash, but if you look at his career BABIP numbers he has never been below .362 at any stop so that should make Pirates fans breath a little easier – you know – if they care about BABIP and worry about Bryan Reynolds. Reynolds is probably a 3.0 WAR player again (3.2 last year) and a two or three hole hitter who will likely start in center and will be a success and even a minor star if he can come close to his 2019 numbers – definitely a keeper.

The Pirates want their 2.0 WAR Gregory Polanco back! There has always seemed to be more to Polanco – some superstar potential that he hadn’t quite reached yet. But at 28 and with the equivalent of about four seasons worth of plate appearances under his belt, Polanco has a career wRC+ of 99 and a slash line of .252/.320/.422. Last year was mostly lost due to a shoulder injury, but Polanco didn’t hit much when he was in the lineup and finished with 87 wRC+ and a slash line of .242/.301/.425. The Pirates would probably be happy with a hot start that would allow them to trade him for more young pieces (if, as it appears, they are intent on rebuilding) or his fourth healthy season of slightly more than 2.0 WAR – 2.2, 2.2, and 2.5 in 2015, 2016, and 2018 respectively. Assuming he is healthy, Polanco will be the starter in right and hit somewhere between the three and the five hole with ‘sigh’ some potential for a big season.

If Reynolds is in center and Polanco is healthy, then Jason Martin is probably playing left. Martin was hitting his way through the Astros system and continued after his trade to the Pirates in 2018 until he reached triple-A. After two attempts at triple-A where his power went away and his OBP cratered, and after Martin had produced a wRC+ of 65 and 83, the Pirates promoted him for 20 games. Martin didn’t do much once he got to Pittsburgh, but maybe the coaches saw something that wasn’t apparent in the numbers. Whatever the case, Martin is probably taking a spot because the other outfielders on the roster are older and have yet to put together even 1.0 career WAR in multiple attempts in the Majors. Martin has a season where he hammered 23 homers at high-A in 400 at-bats so there is some raw power there. There isn’t one standout tool and Martin probably isn’t a future star. But if he could hit enough to be a regular, it would take a lot of pressure off the Pirates who didn’t trade from positional depth when they moved Marte.

The bench is not pretty and I’m not talking about the sunflower seeds on the ground. 27 year old Jose Osuna, 29 year old Guillermo Heredia, and 28 year old Erik Gonzales have generated around -0.1 WAR as a group in 2137 collective career major league plate appearances. Heredia doesn’t hit the ball hard, steal bases effectively, or get on base much. His defensive numbers have been good in the corners and less so in center, but he has played all three spots. That is the profile of a fifth outfielder or a guy who gets stuck in the minors looking for a spot to open up because of an injury.

Jose Osuna is a big man and has some power. He is a corner guy both in the outfield and infield, but his defensive numbers in the outfield haven’t been good and his only favorable defensive numbers have come at third base in a very small sample size. He would probably be a first baseman if not for Josh Bell and his own propensity for making outs. In 623 career plate appearances Osuna has slashed .246/.285/.435 with a 4.8% walk rate and a 17.7% K rate. If he could handle 3rd base with the glove, then last season’s 97 wRC+ might be enough for him to get time to see what’s there. If he has to make it as a corner outfielder with a questionable glove, then the bar is substantially higher.

The most versatile of the Buc’s bench bunch, Erik Gonzalez, has played every position on the field during his professional career except pitcher and catcher, but hasn’t played anywhere long enough for his numbers to prove anything. His scouting numbers make him look like a guy who should be able to play all over the place because his arm and his speed are his best tools. But even a utility guy needs to hit a little to stick these days and Gonzalez hasn’t. In 431 big league plate appearances he has slashed .260/.295/.364 for a wRC+ of 71. For a guy with little to no power, his 4.2% walk rate and 26.9% K rate are disastrous. If you swing and miss that much, you’d better hit the ball really hard when you connect, but Gonzalez has only 6 home runs in the Majors and only one season when he hit as many as 12 home runs in the minors. A fast guy who can play everywhere and throw has his uses but, at 28, it is unlikely that Gonzalez has another gear that we haven’t seen. Yes, it is as ugly as it appears on the Pirates bench.

But wait, there must be a guy or two at triple-A who jumped up and down when the Bucs traded away Marte – right? The short answer to that is yes and no. There’s one guy who is more of a first baseman and another guy who will get his first taste of triple-A this year. The first baseman is Will Craig, who has spent all of 13 professional games in the outfield (all in 2019) but who has a lot of power. Craig has driven 43 balls over the fence in his last two seasons spent at double-A and triple-A, but his hit tool has suffered at the higher levels at the same time as his walk rate has declined and his K rate has inched up. As a first round pick in 2016, he is likely to get some chances in spite of the fact that he is already 25 and he didn’t get a late season call up last September. I’m not sure what the Pirates thought of his audition in the outfield, but he isn’t taking Josh Bell’s first base job so it might be corner outfield or bust unless Bell is the next guy on the bus out of town.

The outfielder who just reached triple-A is 24 year old Jared Oliva. Oliva’s FanGraphs scouting report rates him as having 55 raw power ( but he hasn’t gotten to it much in games. Oliva’s game has been all about speed with 84 steals in 106 attempts. Scouting reports aren’t fond of his defense but the Pirates have stuck with him in center and if he can stay there, then his bat profiles well enough to hold down the job. If he gets pushed to a corner, then he looks fringy as his career slash line of .274/.348/.403 with 15 homers in 1065 at bats – all at double-A and below – doesn’t translate well to a corner spot. If some of his doubles and triples (58 and 17 respectively for his career) can turn into homers he will have a better chance at winning a job in Pittsburgh – probably in 2021 or the second half of 2020.

I’m afraid Pirates fans are going to have to suck it up at the start of the season and hope that they get lucky. For Pittsburgh’s outfield to work three things have to happen. Bryan Reynolds has to be the same guy he was last year holding down a starting spot and playing everyday. If his debut season was a BABIP inflated fantasy that springs a leak, the Bucs are in big trouble. Gregor Polanco has to be healthy and get back to his 2.0 to 2.5 WAR ways or – gasp – have that breakout everyone has been waiting for since his debut in 2014. If he hits like he did in 2019 – ouch. Finally, someone has to step up and take the starting left field spot – probably Jason Martin, but it could be Jose Osuna if he has a big power spring and gets on base more than 30% of the time. If neither man takes hold of the job convincingly, then watch Jared Oliva in the minors and see if he pushes up from triple-A. I doubt Will Craig will get a shot at left, but if he has a hot spring then his power might convince the Pirates that it is worth having him learn the position in the majors because that always works out so well (looking at you Rhys Hoskins). That’s a lot of ifs, I know, but welcome to Pittsburgh where “If ifs and ands were pots and pans we’d all be tinker’s sons” – look it up.