Spring Training Battles: Outfield
The July trades of Jason Bay and Xavier Nady brought eight players in to the fold for the Pirates, including top prospects Jose Tabata and Bryan Morris, but in exchange, left the corner outfield spots open for competition this spring. Going in to the 2009 season, the Pirates have Brandon Moss, Nyjer Morgan, and Steven Pearce competing for the two corner outfield spots, with top prospects Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata the eventual successors to the positions.
The current projection has Brandon Moss playing in right field, if healthy, and Nyjer Morgan playing in left field. The Pirates expressed a need to bring in a right handed power bat this off-season, and thus far have acquired left hander Eric Hinske and right hander Craig Monroe, both veterans with power potential, but neither close to the players that we saw patrolling the outfield corners last season.
Brandon Moss is pretty much a lock to win a starting spot. First, he has no options left, so he can’t be sent to the minors without having to clear waivers. The bigger thing is that Moss was one of the pieces the Pirates got in exchange for Jason Bay, meaning that the Pirates will want to see what they have with him due to the price they paid to bring him in, along with Andy LaRoche, Craig Hansen, and Bryan Morris.
Moss showed impressive power last season for the Pirates, hitting six homers in 158 at bats for a homer every 26.33 ABs. That is similar to his 27.33 AB/HR ratio in 656 AAA at bats, showing that the power may not have been a fluke. The problem was that Moss displayed a .222 average during that stretch, which doesn’t help.
Moss has displayed the ability to hit in the majors, with a .291/.348/.456 line in 103 at bats for Boston. The sample size is small, but Moss also hit .282/.359/.485 in 656 AAA at bats, and .277/.346/.440 in over a thousand AA at bats. My prediction for Moss in 2009 is a .280 average and 20 homers.
That solves one issue for the Pirates, but leaves the left field spot open. Nyjer Morgan has been impressive so far in his short major league career. In 267 career at bats he has a .296/.351/.397 line, but only one homer. He was very impressive in 118 at bats last August and September, hitting for a .347 average with a .391 OBP.
His competition is Steve Pearce, who hasn’t shown the success that Morgan has, with a career .266/.294/.412 line in 177 at bats. Morgan would make a great leadoff man for the Pirates, but that’s not as big of a need as extra power in the lineup. The Pirates would be fine with Nate McLouth batting leadoff.
McLouth hit .273/.362 last year as the leadoff hitter for the Pirates, with 17 homers in 326 at bats. The Pirates would be fine with Morgan hitting leadoff, and McLouth batting third (where he hit for a .284/.352/.394 line last year in 208 ABs), but with the loss of power in the lineup, a better approach would be to keep McLouth at leadoff and go with another power bat in the outfield.
That points to Pearce, who has the power potential, but hasn’t displayed that potential at the major league level. A month ago I wrote that a platoon of Eric Hinske and Steve Pearce would be the best option for the Pirates. Hinske is solid against right handers, but struggles against lefties. In his limited time in the majors, Pearce has done much better against left handers than right handers. The combo of Pearce/Hinske could give the Pirates a .280 average and 25 homers from the left field position, which is much more valuable than anything Morgan can provide. That also leaves Morgan open as a reserve outfielder and a pinch hitter/runner later in the game.
My opinion is that Moss in left field, and Hinske/Pearce in right field is the best approach. However, it is likely that Morgan will play in left field, Moss in right field, and Pearce, who has two options remaining, will be sent to AAA.
In the end, these battles may provide the Pirates with nothing more than trade bait. Andrew McCutchen should be up no later than June to claim one of the outfield spots (probably center field, with McLouth moving to left field), and Jose Tabata could be up in 2010 to claim the final outfield spot. That leaves Moss or Morgan as either reserve outfielders, or trade bait to fill some other holes on the team.