This is the fourth and last installment of the Pittsburgh Pirates outlook for 2014 and who they might grab to help them get there. In part one, we featured the starting pitchers. In part two, we featured the relievers. In part three, we took a look at the catchers and infielders. In this last installment, we will look at the outfield and who will play there.
The most obvious piece of this puzzle is the reigning National League Most Valuable Player Andrew McCutchen. Cutch has already been sighted in Bradenton working out for 2014. This was posted by several outlets on Monday, January 7th, including pittsburghpirates.com. McCutchen is building off three consecutive All Star appearances and back-to-back Silver Slugger awards for his offense and just missing back-to-back Gold Gloves for his defense. While his offense did drop off a little in 2013, he still hit 21 homers, drove in 84 runs, stole 27 bases and hit .317. There is no doubt that Cutch is the face of the Pirates and is under contract until 2017. That means he’ll be roving center field for a long time in the Steel City.
Left field is pretty much locked up as well with Starling Marte. Marte’s star continued to rise as he played in 135 games, hitting 12 homers, 10 triples (2nd in the NL), 26 doubles and stole 41 bases (good enough for 3rd in the NL). The only hole in his game is that he led the National League in getting caught stealing 15 times. The guy is going to be almost as good as Cutch, but he has to strengthen his mental game.
So those two positions are sewn up? Right field is a like a black hole as no one stepped up with any force to take the position. At the moment in January, the leader to start would be Jose Tabata. Tabata has struggled with injuries and inconsistency in the past. However, he seemed to be putting it together late in the 2013 season again. Tabata ended the season hitting .282 in 106 games. What still seems to be missing is the power that was expected when he was traded to Pittsburgh from the New York Yankees in 2008. He has only hit 17 homers since arriving.
We talked about Andrew Lambo in the conversation at first base. Howver, if a move is made to shore up first base, Lambo would also be a candidate here as most of his games have been in the outfield. His offense of 32 homers and 99 RBI between two levels of the Pirate farm system might make people think he is the logical choice here, but his time in Pittsburgh from late August until the end of the season did not leave impressive numbers. He did hit .233 with a homer in only 30 at bats.
Then there was Travis Snider. The Pirates had very high expectations for the former Toronto Blue Jay after arriving at the trade deadline in 2012. However, he only hit .215 in 111 games with only five homers and 25 runs batted in.
The Pirates played Garrett Jones there when he did not play first base, but he is now in Miami with the Marlins. The Buccos began training utility specialist Josh Harrison to play the outfield. He trained well in Indianapolis in 64 games, hitting .317 and stealing 19 bases. The downside was that he only received 88 at bats in Pittsburgh in 2013. The guy is an extreme professional and will serve well as a backup, regardless of where he is placed. It would seem that he has to get a roster spot because the guy can play any infield or outfield position, in my opinion.
The Pirates have also added a couple more outfielders in the offseason. The Pirates traded away Alex Dickerson to San Diego and received new outfielder Jaff Decker in the deal. Decker played well at the Padres’ AAA affiliate in Tucson, hitting .286 with 10 homers and 40 RBI in 105 games. They also just picked up Chris Dickerson as a free agent. Dickerson has spent time with the Reds and Yankees, but spent 2013 between the Baltimore Orioles and their AAA affiliate, Norfolk. In 93 games between the two teams, he hit six homers, knocked 21 runs and hit .240.
While Tabata might break through in 2014, the real promising player for the future is Gregory Polanco. The Pirates look to have the position filled by Polanco’s presence as soon as sometime late in the year. Polanco had a successful 2013 between three levels (Bradenton, Altoona and Indianapolis). In 127 games, he hit .285 with 30 doubles and 38 steals, along with 12 homers. The Pirates expect his power to grow along with the rest of his game, which should give the Pirates a great outfield after this season.
With the promise, we still have 2014 to worry about. What most experts believe is that the team only needs a reliable place holder in right field until Polanco is ready. So let’s look at four guys who could make an impact in right for this season.
The most obvious free agent still available is Nelson Cruz, formerly of the Texas Rangers. Cruz would be an awesome bat in the middle of the order as he has averaged over 25 home runs during the last five seasons, with a high of 33 in 2009. His bat would be much like the bat of Marlon Byrd and how he helped the Pirates down the stretch of 2013. The question on any signing would be how much drugs helped him over those last five seasons. It would be a good one year risk just to help him build back his value for a long-term deal. The downside of his signing is the compensation pick, just as Morales or Drew would be.
The next guy we’ll look at is a guy that was released January 16 from the New York Yankees. Vernon Wells could be a stop-gap in right, provided he finds his bat the way he started 2013 for the Yankees. He had 10 homers in April, but couldn’t keep the offense going. If the Pirates decided to pick him up, they would only be on the hook for the league minimum salary as he is still getting paid by the Angels and Yankees for 2014.
Rick Ankiel began as a pitcher in the Cardinals’ organization and totally lost his game. He bounced back as a hitter in 2008 when he hit 25 homers for the Redbirds. He has bounced around after that, playing with the Royals, Braves, Nationals, Astros and Mets over the last four seasons. Even though he hit .194 a season ago between Houston and New York, he is still a low-risk target.
The final guy that might take a low contract to show that he can still play is former Met Jordany Valdespin. Like Cruz, he was involved in the Biogenesis scandal. Once he returned from his suspension, the Mets demoted him and he became a free agent after the season. He was rumored to be signing with the Marlins before Christmas, but there has been no action on that rumor since. If he were taken, he may tinker with double digit steals and very little pop.
What do I think will happen? I seriously doubt we will see Cruz, but many of those I mentioned after him could get signed to alleviate the stress of seeing if Lambo indeed can translate the minor league numbers of 2013 and/or Gregory Polanco gets promoted to the big leagues earlier than expected.
All statistical information can be found at either Baseball Reference.com or MLB.com