The Pittsburgh Pirates have an MVP center fielder. They also have a center fielder who is a playmaker, and uses his center field skills to be one of the best defensive left-fielders in the game. In the wings they have a third center fielder who has the potential to be just as good as the MVP, and who could arrive by mid-season 2014.
Most teams would kill for just one good center fielder. The Pirates will most likely have three of them in the majors by the end of the upcoming season. That trio will be together at least through the 2018 season, which gives the Pirates a good chance of having the best outfield in the majors at some point between mid-season 2014 and the end of the 2018 season.
Everyone knows about Andrew McCutchen. That’s not just everyone in Pittsburgh. That’s everyone. He has gone from being the most popular players on the Pirates to one of the most popular players in sports. This off-season he has proposed on Ellen, and has presented an award at the Country Music Awards. And that’s following a season where he was on the cover of MLB: The Show, all before winning his first MVP award.
Pittsburgh fans know about Starling Marte, but might not realize just how good Marte actually is. A lot of focus goes on his strikeouts and lack of walks, but not as much focus goes toward all of the things he does exceptionally well. He was a 4.6 WAR player in 2013, which had him tied as the 27th best position player in the majors. He does have the strikeout and walk issues, but Marte ranked 7th out of 140 qualified hitters last year in base running, and had the best UZR/150 ratio of any left fielder in the game. All of this came in his first full season in the majors. By comparison, Andrew McCutchen had a 3.5 WAR in his first full season in the majors. So I don’t think we’ve seen all we’re going to see from Marte.
Then there’s the big addition to the group in 2014: Gregory Polanco. Today he was named the MVP and the Rookie of the Year in the Dominican Winter League. I don’t put much stock in the Winter Leagues, but his success this off-season is notable since the DWL is the toughest Winter League, and is the equivalent of Triple-A pitching. Polanco hasn’t had much time against Triple-A pitchers, so the success this off-season was great to see.
Neal Huntington has said Polanco won’t be an option for Opening Day. That’s no surprise, as there are developmental and financial reasons to hold him back. The financial reasons are more important for the long-term. He profiles as an impact talent, so the Pirates will want to get an extra year of control (which they can get by holding him in Triple-A the first three weeks of the season), and they will want to avoid an extra year of arbitration (which can be accomplished with a call-up in mid-June or later).
Polanco probably isn’t going to be an impact talent from day one. However, he has the potential to be a good hitter from day one. As far as expected debuts, I’d put him closer to Andrew McCutchen’s debut (.286/.365/.471) than Starling Marte’s debut (.257/.300/.437). I’d also put Polanco’s upside closer to McCutchen than Marte. Just like Marte, Polanco can provide value on defense and on the bases. He’s a plus base runner, and has a ton of range and a great arm in the outfield. He profiles as the best center fielder of the group, although I don’t see McCutchen moving off the position.
Unlike Marte, Polanco has outstanding plate patience, which leads to a higher on-base percentage, and the ability to consistently hit for a higher average. He also has some power, with the present ability for a lot of extra base hits and double-digit homers. In the future it’s easy to see him hitting 30 homers a year if he adds a bit more weight to his tall and skinny frame.
You can dream on Polanco’s upside. He’s got the potential to have a bat like McCutchen, with defense and base running skills like Marte. It wouldn’t be a surprise to me if he ends up the best of the group. That’s better than two guys who were top 30 position players in 2013, one of which was the MVP. Even if Polanco falls short in one area — whether it’s hitting, power, defense, or he loses speed — he’s still going to provide value in many other areas.
There are many reasons why I think that the 2014 Pirates could be a better all around team than the 2013 Pirates. One of the big reasons is Polanco. The Pirates saw their right fielders struggle during the first four months of 2013. Jose Tabata started hitting in August, but that was around the time Starling Marte went down. They added Marlon Byrd and finally had a fully productive outfield in September. This year they will be starting with Tabata and Travis Snider. Maybe Tabata carries over his late season success. Maybe Snider’s problems last year were really due to his toe injury. But worse case, they struggle once again, and Polanco is ready to take over mid-season, without the need to wait and make a deal for someone like Byrd. The Pirates could have half a season of a fully productive outfield, rather than just one month like in 2013.
Beyond the 2014 season, the addition of Polanco could easily give the Pirates the best outfield in the majors. Last year the Red Sox led the majors with a 15.7 WAR from their outfielders. The Pirates were in third place with a 13.1 WAR. That was largely due to the 12.8 WAR combined from McCutchen and Marte. It won’t take much from Polanco to put the trio in first place.
Links and Notes
**The 2014 Prospect Guide is now available. The book is currently on back order after the first shipment sold out. That first shipment matched the total number of books that were sold in 2013. The next shipment arrives at the end of this week, and I’m hoping to get all of the orders out by Friday. You can place your order here. The eBook version will be available tomorrow morning, so check the site tomorrow for that announcement.
**Pirates Lose Jerry Sands To Tampa Bay Rays. They would have been able to keep Sands if he cleared waivers. I don’t disagree with the decision to waive him. He was out of options, and would have eventually needed to go on waivers, or be added to the active roster on Opening Day. I didn’t see the latter happening, so there was no reason keeping him around in the short-term. I still think Sands has the potential to crack the majors, and he might have a better shot in the AL with a DH. He would have been fifth on the Opening Day depth chart with the Pirates, behind Snider, Tabata, Andrew Lambo, and Jaff Decker. Once Polanco arrived, Sands wouldn’t have had a spot with the team.
**Pirates Lose Ryan Reid on Waivers to the Mets. Here is a move that shows the Pirates’ pitching depth. Reid is a good pitcher, and is good enough to pitch in the majors. He’s not good enough to be a full-time relief option in the majors, looking more like a depth option. I’d place him behind Duke Welker, Miles Mikolas, and Jared Hughes as far as guys currently on the 40-man roster. He’s about the same talent as a lot of the minor league free agents they’ve been adding this off-season. The difference is that guys like Jay Jackson and Josh Kinney didn’t require a 40-man spot, which isn’t the case with Reid. There was a time where the Pirates would have had no problem keeping Reid on the 40-man roster. That’s not the case any more.
**From the weekend: Why Nick Kingham Would Be Too Much to Pay For Ike Davis