The outfield position is one of few positions in the Pirates system where there is a good amount of depth. At the beginning of the season the Pirates had an outfield of Nate McLouth, Nyjer Morgan, and Brandon Moss, with Andrew McCutchen in the wings, ready for a call-up. That call came in June, after the trade which sent Nate McLouth to Atlanta. Nyjer Morgan was traded at the end of June for Lastings Milledge, and while waiting for Milledge to make it to the majors, the Pirates stumbled on to Garrett Jones.
The 2009 Season
Andrew McCutchen didn’t miss a beat in his promotion to the majors, hitting for a .286/.365/.471 line with 12 homers in 433 at-bats during his rookie campaign. Over a full season that’s 15 homers and 30 stolen bases for McCutchen, and he’s only 22 years old. After years of seeing top prospects come up and flop in the majors, it’s nice to see someone who might actually be the real deal.
Garrett Jones also was a huge success, although Jones was more of a surprise. Jones spent a few years blocked behind Justin Morneau in the Minnesota Twins organization before signing as a minor league free agent with the Pirates. After the Nyjer Morgan trade, Jones got the chance to prove himself in the majors, and he did just that. Jones hit for a .293/.372/.567 line with 21 homers in 314 at-bats. That’s 40 homers in a full season. The last Pirates player to hit 40 homers was Ralph Kiner in 1951.
Lastings Milledge was the top prospect in the New York Mets’ system a few years ago. He fell out of favor due to maturity issues, with most of those issues centered around his victory lap after a game tying home run in extra innings during his first week in the majors, and a rap album he was a part of. Milledge was traded to Washington, where he spent a year and a half. Milledge put up decent numbers in 2008, with a .268 average and 14 homers in 523 at-bats during his first full season in the majors.
Milledge ran in to trouble to start the 2009 season, getting demoted to AAA for being late to several practices. He then broke his pinky finger, missing more time. By the time of the Nyjer Morgan trade, the Nationals wanted to rid themselves of Milledge and his problems. The only thing is that, once Milledge arrived in Pittsburgh, we didn’t see much of a head case. Milledge was a model citizen, and a great ball player. In 220 at-bats with the Pirates, Milledge hit for a .291/.333/.395 line with four homers.
Jose Tabata is one of the top prospects in the Pirates’ system, recently voted number two behind Pedro Alvarez in the OBN prospects poll
. Tabata is another player who had the “head case” label, but has yet to show those problems with the Pirates. In 2008, Tabata hit for a .348/.402/.562 line in 89 at-bats after joining the Altoona Curve. In 2009, Tabata hit for a .303/.370/.404 line in 228 at-bats in Altoona, before getting promoted to AAA. In Indianapolis, Tabata hit for a .276/.333/.410 line in 134 at-bats.
Tabata could be up as early as June 2010, although I don’t think this is a guarantee. If I’m the Pirates management, I’m going to wait for Tabata to start showing some power before calling him up. Tabata is only 21 years old, and power is usually the last thing to develop with a player. His power has been limited so far, but he has a high doubles rate, which is an indicator of future power.
Gorkys Hernandez was brought over in the Nate McLouth trade this year, but struggled after arriving in Altoona. That’s a surprise, as Hernandez was hitting for a .316/.361/.387 line in AA before the trade, but only hit for a .262/.312/.340 line following the trade. I have a feeling that the hitting woes were due more to Hernandez being traded twice in the last three years, and playing for three different organizations in three different levels in that time.
In the lower levels the Pirates had two promising players at West Virginia. One was Dominican prospect Starling Marte, who hit for a .312/.377/.439 line in his first year in the United States. Marte showed a lot of promise, considering he basically skipped two levels, jumping from the VSL to West Virginia, all at the age of 20. Marte could be the first big international prospect the Pirates have produced in a long time.
The Pirates also had Robbie Grossman
, taken in the sixth round of the 2008 draft, and signed away from a commitment to Texas with a $1 M signing bonus. Grossman hit for a .266/.373/.355 line in his first full professional season at the age of 19, but did have some problems with pitch recognition, striking out 164 times in 451 at-bats.
Outside of the big four prospects, the Pirates had several other promising talents in the system. Evan Chambers was selected in the third round of the 2009 draft, and has drawn comparisons to Kirby Puckett. Chambers hit for a .245 average in his first professional year, but had an impressive .393 OBP and a .380 SLG. Chambers actually hit for a .290/.425/.420 line following the NYPL All-Star Break, which means the early struggles could have been due to adjusting to wooden bats.
In the low levels of the minors the Pirates have 2008 16th round draft pick Wes Freeman
, and international prospect Rogelios Noris. Freeman is more of a raw talent, with a disappointing .210/.275/.344 rookie season in the pros. Freeman is a five tool talent, but is far from being more than just a project at this point.
Noris made the jump from the VSL to Bradenton this year at the age of 20. In his first year in the United States, Noris hit for a .250/.325/.485 line in 136 at-bats. Like Freeman and Grossman, Noris has issues with strikeouts, striking out 51 times this year, but has some power potential, and a good frame at 6′ 2″, 192 lbs.
The Pirates have two main pieces of their immediate outfield future already in the majors. Andrew McCutchen is under team control through the 2015 season, while Lastings Milledge is under team control through the 2013 season. McCutchen is living up to his expectations, and the only question with him is: can he continue playing at this level.
The big question surrounding Milledge is his ability to hit for power. Milledge has shown some great defensive skills this season, along with the ability to get on base and hit for average. He’s shown power potential in the past, and if he can get that power back, he will prove to be the upgrade the Pirates were looking for when they traded Nyjer Morgan to get him.
The biggest question in the current lineup is Garrett Jones. First, we don’t know whether Jones will remain in the outfield. The natural position for Jones is first base, and the Pirates have holes at first base and right field going in to 2010. Then there’s questions about the production from Jones. Jones had an amazing season, but half a season doesn’t make a career. If Jones is legit, the Pir
ates have stumbled on to a player who is just as good as Jason Bay was. The question is: will Jones repeat his 2009 success?
Jose Tabata could throw a wrench in to the mix in 2010. If Tabata sees his power come along in 2010, we could see him in the majors as early as June. That would move Garrett Jones to first base, assuming no one else is available to play that position, and assuming Jones was legit in 2009.
Gorkys Hernandez adds another level of decision making if he manages to pan out in the future. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Hernandez replace Milledge down the line. Hernandez would be great in left field at PNC Park, and if he can find some power, he wouldn’t hurt the team in a corner outfield spot. Gorkys also adds insurance incase Tabata doesn’t work out, or if Milledge doesn’t find a power stroke.
Anyone in the lower levels is a bonus at this point. The Pirates will have an outfield of McCutchen, Tabata, and Milledge until Milledge is free agent eligible after the 2013 season. That group could be together through the 2015 season if Hernandez takes over for Milledge at some point. That’s plenty of time for someone in the Starling Marte/Robbie Grossman/Evan Chambers group to step up. We may even see the Pirates trade some of this depth to add talent to a weak area, kind of like we saw already when the Pirates traded Nate McLouth
to get Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke, two potential mid of the rotation starters.
Overall, the outfield position is one area in the Pirates system that actually looks good, not just in the future, but in the present time as well.