The 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates season begins on Monday when the Pirates take on the Cubs. To prepare for the start of the year, I’ll be previewing all of the position groups on the Opening Day roster. Here are the previews we have so far.
The Pirates Won’t Have to Wait For Gregory Polanco to Have a Top Outfield – READING
The Pirates had one of the best outfields in baseball last year, combining for a 13.1 WAR, which ranked third in baseball, and was the best group in the National League. A big reason for this was Andrew McCutchen, who won the MVP award and had an 8.2 WAR. Starling Marte’s 4.6 WAR also helped. Both players will be returning this year, and at their ages, it’s possible that they could continue that production, and possibly improve. That means the Pirates will probably once again have one of the top outfields in the league.
Travis Snider and Jose Tabata didn’t put up the best results as starters throughout the year. Tabata had a strong finish to the season, but missed some time with an injury. Snider had a horrible season, and missed a lot of time with a toe injury. The Pirates will go with both players in right field again this year. The difference is that they have top prospect Gregory Polanco set to arrive in June. That means if Tabata and Snider are struggling, the Pirates won’t have to wait until the end of August to replace them. And once Polanco arrives, the Pirates could be on their way to having the best outfield in the game.
In 2012, Andrew McCutchen had a breakout season, posting a 6.7 WAR. The big concern heading into the 2013 season was that McCutchen wouldn’t be able to reach those levels once again, making it hard for the Pirates to be competitive. Instead, he exceeded that production, posting an 8.2 WAR in 2013.
McCutchen actually saw a decline with his overall offensive numbers. He had a .327/.400/.553 line in 2012, and a .317/.404/.508 line in 2013. His average dropped a bit, and his power saw a decline to his 2011 numbers. To make up for this, McCutchen saw massive increases in his defensive value, and saw an increase in his base running.
It’s hard to say where McCutchen’s game will go from here. Will his power bounce back to the 2012 levels, or remain like the 2013 levels? His .190 ISO in 2013 was more in line with his career .193 mark, compared to the .226 he put up in 2012.
Will the defense continue at 2013 levels? He had an 8.4 UZR/150 last year, compared to a -8.6 UZR/150 in 2012. In his career he has a -2.8 UZR/150, although he’s had positive numbers in two of the last three years.
The projections all have McCutchen as a 6-7 win player. I think that’s a good conservative approach to take. At the same time, it’s possible that McCutchen either maintains his 2013 production, or improves on that value once again, which could come by keeping the defensive value and returning the offense to 2012 totals.
Steamer: 6.2 WAR
Oliver: 6.8 WAR
ZiPS: 6.0 WAR
The Pirates just signed Marte to a six-year extension with two option years. In total, the deal buys out control of three of his free agent years. This comes after his first full season in the majors, where he had a 4.6 WAR. In 2012 he had a 1.1 WAR in the final two months of the year, which is about a 3.3 WAR season over a full year. So it’s not out of the question that Marte could repeat his 2013 value, or improve on those numbers in his second full year in the majors. If that happens, then the Pirates would have extended him at the right time.
Marte gets a lot of his value from his speed and defense. He was worth 7.2 runs above average running the bases last year, and 4.9 runs above average defensively. The defensive rating is actually adjusted down since he plays left field, which is traditionally less demanding defensively. However, PNC Park’s left field plays like center field, so Marte’s true defensive value is probably greater than the advanced metrics give him credit for. His UZR/150 of 20.1 was the best in baseball among left fielders.
Marte had a .280 average last year, which came with a .363 BABIP. That’s a high number, but it’s not unusual for him. He had a .344 in Triple-A, a .390 in Double-A, and a .424 in High-A. Marte has a high BABIP because of his speed, and his ability to bunt for a single, or reach base on infield singles. Last year Marte ranked second in baseball in bunt hits with ten, and 9.9% of his balls in play were infield hits, which ranked 11th in baseball.
The power numbers were good, with a .161 ISO, and there’s room for improvement as he gets older. The biggest concern is his lack of walks. Marte has a 4.4% walk rate in his career so far, and with his approach at the plate, that doesn’t project to go up. Marte ranked in the top 30 in baseball last year in swing percentage out of the strike zone. He’s not going to draw a lot of walks, although that was off-set last year by him getting hit by a lot of pitches. That has been a trend in his career, which should continue going forward, and should help to elevate his OBP.
The projections have Marte between a 3-4 win player. Considering he was closer to five wins above replacement last year, those projections seem low. It’s possible that Marte could exceed these projections, and exceed his 2013 value, as he gets more time and experience in the league. His defense and base running will be there, giving him a lot of value without even considering the bat.
Steamer: 3.0 WAR
Oliver: 3.8 WAR
ZiPS: 3.1 WAR
The Pirates seem to be going with Snider as their primary right fielder to start the year. He has looked good in the limited time that I’ve seen him during Spring Training. I’ve also talked with a few scouts who remain high on him, despite the lack of success so far in the majors. The Pirates are obviously high on him, which led to them giving him $1.4 M this year, and one more shot in the majors before Gregory Polanco arrives.
There’s not much to say about Snider’s game to give any hope that he will be a good player in right field this year. You’re pretty much relying on projectable tools, and the hope that everything will finally click for him this year. The time is running out on the tools, and the time for him to put everything together in the majors is running out, since Polanco is on the way. The projection systems have him close to being a replacement level player, which seems like a safe bet.
Steamer: 0.3 WAR
Oliver: -0.1 WAR
ZiPS: 0.0 WAR
Tabata actually had a better season than Snider last year, looking good in the final two months of the season. He has been injury prone throughout his career, which is something you could say about Snider. He has also been inconsistent, although that’s an upgrade over Snider. If you ask me, Tabata should be the primary right fielder, with Snider serving as the backup. He has been better so far in his career, and the Pirates have more invested in him going forward. They’d be better off seeing if he can put things together this year before Polanco arrives.
Tabata was a 1.1 WAR player last year, after missing about two months of the season. He had a horrible year in 2012, but was an 0.8 WAR player in 2011 and a 1.9 WAR player in his rookie season in 2010. The projection systems have him close to a win and a half above replacement, which would be a decent starter and a great bench option when Polanco arrives.
I’d personally rather see what Tabata can do going forward, rather than giving Snider another shot. I’m not saying that there’s no chance Snider puts things together. I’m also not saying that Tabata will continue hitting like he did at the end of 2013, where he had an .848 OPS over the final two months of the season. But if you ask me who has the better chance of being productive before Polanco arrives, and valuable to the team after Polanco arrives, my answer would be Tabata in both cases.
Steamer: 1.4 WAR
Oliver: 1.4 WAR
ZiPS: 1.5 WAR
I’d list him with the depth options and the other guys that won’t open the season in Pittsburgh, but Polanco deserves his own section. He’s going to be up by mid-season this year, and he has the skills to have an immediate impact in the majors, much like Andrew McCutchen did during his rookie season. Eventually, Polanco projects to be an impact talent, although that might not happen in 2014.
When Polanco arrives, he’ll give the Pirates strong defense in right field, and a ton of speed on the bases. He’ll have a chance to turn a lot of walks and singles into doubles with his base stealing abilities. He’s got advanced plate patience, so he won’t deal with the low walk rates that Marte struggles with. He also makes good contact and projects to hit for average, with the ability to hit for power now, and more power projection in the future.
It’s hard to get a good projection for prospects who haven’t played in the majors. Surprisingly, Polanco gets good ratings from the projection systems — better than most prospects receive. These projections are based on an entire season of play, which he will not get. Polanco does have some work to do before he arrives in the majors, since he hasn’t seen much pitching above Double-A, and he’s seen about half a season’s worth of pitching above A-ball. He probably won’t need until mid-June, but by the time he’s ready, it will be in the Pirates’ best interest to wait a few weeks and avoid Super Two status. Once mid-June arrives, expect Polanco to arrive in Pittsburgh.
Steamer: 0.0 WAR
Oliver: 4.6 WAR
ZiPS: 2.9 WAR
Polanco is the guy who will take over in the second half of the season in right field. If the Pirates need an outfielder prior to that, expect Jaff Decker to be that guy. Decker has the ability to play all three outfield positions, and has shown a good ability to get on base, while hitting for a decent amount of power in the minors.His upside is more of a fourth outfielder or a part-time starter. The Pirates would probably only need him off the bench, since he would fall fifth on the depth chart, and that’s before Polanco arrives.
Chris Dickerson is also a depth option who profiles as a bench player at best. Dickerson would see the majors if the Pirates lost two of their regular outfielders, which is certainly a possibility considering the injury history from Snider and Tabata, as well as Marte’s tendency to get hit with pitches, and McCutchen’s all out play.