The Pirates have some questions in their outfield in 2018.
Andrew McCutchen has struggled the last few years, and while he can still be a 4.0 WAR player, he’s not the same guy who once led this lineup.
Gregory Polanco still has the upside of a star player, but we’ve gotten to the point where he may never realize that, and might be an average-to-above average player at best. He also has a history of injuries, which makes it less likely that he could put up even that type of production.
Starling Marte is coming off a down year, although as I wrote today, I’m less worried about him than the other two. I think we could see the old Marte return next year.
Overall, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think this outfield could combine for 10-11 WAR in 2018. McCutchen and Marte are capable of 4 WAR production, and Polanco is capable of 2-3 WAR production without assuming any further improvements from any of them.
That would have been good enough this past year to rank 9th in the majors for the most productive outfield groups, and maybe a bit higher if you factor in a win or two off the bench. But as we’ve seen, you can’t count on everything going right with this group. So what happens if things go wrong? Who do the Pirates have to step up?
The biggest option would be Austin Meadows, although he comes with his own set of challenges and uncertainty. Meadows has yet to make the jump to the majors, and hasn’t looked ready yet, needing more time in Triple-A. The reason for his delay has been his lengthy injury history, which saw several additions to the list this year. Meadows will eventually get adjusted to Triple-A, and then he will make the majors. He projects as a guy who should be able to eventually make the transition to becoming an MLB starter. The one lasting concern would be his injuries, putting him in a similar category as Polanco.
As for the 2018 season, it’s hard to count on Meadows as depth, since that would require him to make the adjustments to Triple-A, make the successful leap to the majors, and stay healthy. When he does the first two things, and the third thing is all we have to worry about, then he could be considered a depth option.
The Pirates do have two options on the current team who could step up if the club needed an outfielder. Adam Frazier is already serving that role, and hasn’t been a bad guy to have off the bench. He had a 1.1 fWAR this year, fueled by a .743 OPS and surprisingly good defense in the outfield, due mostly to his range. I don’t see Frazier as a good starting option if the Pirates were to lose one of the above guys for the year (or if they were to trade McCutchen). I do see him as a good fourth outfield option off the bench, capable of stepping in for a normal injury or the usual off days.
I don’t know if I’m counting on Jordan Luplow yet to be a major league starter after just 87 plate appearances. Right now if I’m giving him an upside, it would be as an average starter, and maybe better if his power turns out to be legit in the majors. He had a .755 OPS in the month of September, along with a .209 ISO. He’s not a strong defender, but I think he could handle the position, with his offense making up for that.
Right now I see Luplow as equal to Frazier, with enough offense to be good off the bench, and good enough defensively to handle the position over an extended period of time. I do see more offensive upside with Luplow, and if that shows up sooner than later, the Pirates could have a nice injury replacement, while still having Frazier as the fourth outfielder on the bench. I’d expect both of them to make the Opening Day roster next year.
In the event that the Pirates trade McCutchen and go for a quick rebuild, I think having Luplow as a starter makes the most sense. That will be about the only shot he would get at being a regular starter in Pittsburgh, outside of a lengthy injury. It would give him a chance to show what he can do before Meadows arrives, and then give the Pirates some options with their future outfield.
Beyond Meadows, Frazier, and Luplow, the Pirates have some other options. Josh Harrison and Sean Rodriguez could both play the outfield, but I’d be surprised if they’re both on the team, and if you only have one left, it would take away from the infield to put them in the outfield. Jose Osuna and Chris Bostick are options, but I see their upsides as bench players only, behind Frazier and Luplow on the depth chart.
The Pirates have question marks in their starting outfield, with the upside of a 10-11 WAR group. If those outfielders deal with injuries or poor performances, then they have some options on the bench and in the minors. Unfortunately, they also come with questions. Meadows isn’t ready, and then has the question of health. Frazier looks solid off the bench, but has the question of whether he can be a starter. Luplow seems more likely to be a starter, but the question is whether he can make that jump, and whether he can make it sooner than later.
That’s not exactly the most favorable position for the Pirates to be in for this group. On the flip side, it could be worse, as they could be without a group that has this upside to begin with, or without three players who at the very least have a shot at being strong bench options, and maybe more.