For most of the 2011 season, there wasn’t a specific starter at either corner outfield position for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Jose Tabata began the season as the everyday starter in left field, but finished the year as the everyday starter in right field. That happened when Alex Presley came up and took over the everyday duties in left field. Presley didn’t arrive until late June, and missed most of August with an injury. That allowed Garrett Jones, Matt Diaz, Xavier Paul, and Ryan Ludwick to add playing time at the corner outfield positions.
The Pirates started off the season with a combination of Tabata in left field, and a platoon of Jones and Diaz in right field. Tabata was coming off a season where he hit for a .299 average and a .746 OPS as a rookie in 405 at-bats. He had an OPS over .800 through the first few weeks of the season, but entered a slump at the end of April, which took him down to the .700 OPS range. Tabata stayed in that range, hitting for a .278 average and a .698 OPS in May and June combined, before going down in late June with a hamstring injury. Tabata returned briefly in mid-August, and played until early September, hitting for a .273/.341/.390 line in 77 at-bats. He was then shut down for the season with a small fracture in his left hand.
Jones and Diaz entered the season in a platoon in right field. Jones had struggled against left handers in his year and a half in the majors, while Diaz had crushed left handers throughout his career. On paper, the platoon should have led to big things. Coming in to the season, Diaz was a career .335/.373/.533 hitter against left handers. Jones was a career .282/.359/.495 hitter against right handers. If you took those numbers and assumed a 700 plate appearance season, with Jones getting 66% of the playing time, you got a .300/.364/.508 hitter with 29 homers.
What actually happened was that Diaz hit for a .295/.342/.362 line in 105 at-bats against left handers, while Jones hit for a .262/.346/.462 line in 355 at-bats against right handers. There was no power from Diaz, and the production from Jones wasn’t strong enough to make him a platoon starter. Both players also demonstrated why they should have been in a platoon, with Diaz posting a .553 OPS against right handers, and Jones putting up a .460 OPS against left handers. Diaz was eventually traded to the Atlanta Braves, with the Pirates receiving Eliecer Cardenas in return. Jones ended up spending time on the bench after Presley was called up.
Alex Presley had a breakout season in 2010, which saw him hit for a .350/.399/.533 line in AA, followed by a .294/.349/.460 line in AAA and a September call-up to the majors. He followed that up with a .333/.388/.485 line in AAA, before getting called up in late June to replace the injured Tabata. Presley didn’t see a drop off in his numbers, ending up with a .298/.339/.465 line in 215 at-bats during his rookie season. He started off with a .333/.402/.494 line in 81 at-bats through the end of July, when he went down with a thumb injury. He returned at the end of August, putting up a .276/.297/.448 line, although he hit for a .308/.327/.514 line in 107 at-bats in September, with the thumb injury still being an issue for him.
Tabata and Presley both were injured near the trade deadline, and the Pirates were two games above .500, which led to a trade for Ryan Ludwick from the San Diego Padres. The Pirates sent a player to be named later, and so far a name hasn’t been announced (the Padres have until January 31st to make an announcement). Ludwick was hitting for a .238/.301/.373 line in 378 at-bats with the Padres, and he didn’t do much better with the Pirates, putting up a similar .232/.341/.300 line in 112 at-bats.
While Tabata and Presley were injured, Xavier Paul also got some time as a starter. Paul showed good defense, and speed on the bases, but doesn’t hit enough to be a full time starter. That said, his .254/.293/.349 line would put him ahead of Ludwick’s performance on the depth charts, especially when you factor in the speed, defense, and the league minimum price.
Presley and Tabata in 2012
The starting outfield for the 2012 season looks to include Alex Presley and Jose Tabata at the corners. The Pirates showed their commitment to Tabata when they signed him to a six year deal, with options for the 2017-2019 seasons. The deal is extremely team friendly. Tabata will make $1 M or less in 2012 and 2013. In 2014-2016 he will be in the $3-4.5 M range, which will either be a huge value if he lives up to his potential, or will be a reasonable price if he ends up a strong fourth outfielder. The option years are $6.5 M in 2017, $7.5 M in 2018, and $8.5 M in 2019, with $250 K buyouts on each year. All three numbers would be a value if Tabata realized his potential.
The big question with Tabata is whether he can live up to his potential, and what that potential is. Through two seasons he has a .284/.348/.383 line in 739 at-bats, with eight homers. The glaring number is his lack of power, especially since he will be playing in right field. It seems more likely that Tabata will put up the numbers you’d see from a center fielder/leadoff hitter. The Pirates can afford this production from right field, as they’ve got Andrew McCutchen putting up great numbers in center field.
Tabata is only 22 years old, so to say he won’t improve on his numbers from his first two seasons is a bit premature. He could add some power, although I don’t see him as more than a 10-15 homer a year guy. I think it’s more likely that we see something similar to his 2010 season in Indianapolis: a .300 average, and an OPS around .800, mostly fueled by a high on-base percentage. That, combined with his defense and his speed on the bases, makes Tabata an ideal leadoff hitter, and allows the Pirates to move Andrew McCutchen down in the order.
The Pirates have a similar situation in left field with Presley. It’s hard to say what Presley will become, mostly because we’re just getting used to the idea that his recent performance isn’t a fluke. He had a breakout season in 2010, and proved it was legit in 2011. In 2011 he put up a .298 average and an .804 OPS, although most of his OPS was fueled by power, with a .465 slugging percentage. That slugging percentage was higher than Andrew McCutchen’s .456 slugging percentage, and was second on the team to Ryan Doumit’s .477 mark.
In his time in AAA over the last two seasons, Presley combined for a .316/.371/.474 line in 614 at-bats. If he can come close to that in the majors, he’ll be a solid all-around starter, with good defense in left field, plus the speed you want from a top of the order hitter. His walks were down in his jump to the majors this year, and he needs to get those numbers back up to boost his on-base percentage to the level you’d like to see from a top of the order hitter.
It wouldn’t surprise me to see Presley as a .300 hitter with an .850 OPS, especially if he can get his walk rate back to the levels we saw in AAA. I think those numbers are a best case scenario, and the power would come more in the form of extra base hits from his speed, rather than homers. I see him as a 15 homer a year guy, which combined with a lot of doubles and triples could be a nice threat.
Between Tabata and Presley, the Pirates have two guys who provide strong defense in the outfield, speed on the bases, and the hitting skills to bat in the top two spots of the order. Neither player projects as a star, although they both profile as potential all-around above average players, when you consider their hitting, speed, and defense. It’s an unconventional approach, but it seems like the Pirates are trying to win with speed and defense at these two positions, while making up for the lost power at positions like second base and center field.
The Pirates have two outfield prospects that stood out in the minors this year: Starling Marte and Robbie Grossman. Marte entered the year as our number two overall prospect, behind Jameson Taillon. He made the jump to AA in 2011, and hit for a .332/.370/.500 line in 536 at-bats, winning the Eastern League batting title in the process. Not only did he handle the jump to AA with ease, he also added some power to his game, hitting 12 homers, with most of those coming in the second half.
Marte is a guy who excels on defense, with a lot of speed, range, and one of the best arms in the system. He could move Andrew McCutchen over to left field eventually, which will raise some questions about what to do with Tabata and Presley if both players pan out. He also adds some insurance should one of those two options fail to live up to their projections. Marte should make the jump to AAA next year, and might even have a shot at the majors by mid-season.
Robbie Grossman got a lot of attention this year, and has been talked about a lot lately due to his performances in the Arizona Fall League, where he currently has a .383 average and a 1.147 OPS in 60 at-bats, along with five homers. A lot of people are divided on Grossman’s potential. The common view on him is that he doesn’t have the speed and defensive skills for center field, and he doesn’t have the power potential for a corner spot. Prior to the 2011 season I received a few reports that he could add power to his game, although he wouldn’t really be a big power guy in terms of 20 or more homers. Grossman added power this season, hitting 13 homers, but the reports haven’t really changed. He’s viewed more as a guy with 15 homer upside, and similar production to Presley.
Of course that’s where the debate comes in between stats and scouting. Grossman’s numbers in high-A this year were impressive. He had a .294 average and an .869 OPS, with the big standout stat being his 104 walks. The big test for Grossman will be the jump to AA. If he can carry his numbers over to the next level, it would probably do more in his case to prove the scouting reports wrong. That might be asking for a lot, not only for him to carry his high-A numbers over to AA, but to improve on his power numbers in the process. Then again, that’s the same thing Marte did in 2011.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the scouting reports typically exist in a vacuum. They ignore the actual situation that a major league team is in. Grossman might not have the power you typically want from a corner outfielder, but neither do Tabata or Presley. It’s one thing to talk about Grossman versus the ideal corner outfielder. It’s another to compare him to what is actually in the system. When we look at the options he’s going up against, Grossman can almost certainly be viewed as a starting candidate, or at worst, insurance in case the other options don’t work out.
The Pirates also added Josh Bell in the 2011 draft, and Bell is definitely deserving of being in this discussion. Coming out of high school, Bell is a long ways away. He will probably take the Grossman route, spending his entire first year in low-A, and moving up to high-A in 2013. If he has success the first time around in high-A, unlike Grossman, we could see him move up to the AA level in 2014, with a shot at the majors in 2015. Bell, a switch hitter, has the ability to hit for plus power from both sides of the plate, along with plus hitting from both sides. You could argue that he has more upside than any other outfielder in the system, McCutchen included. That said, he’s more of a long term option, rather than someone who can help in the short term.
The Pirates also have a few interesting five tool options in the lower levels, such as Mel Rojas Jr., Willy Garcia, and Gregory Polanco. The combo of Tabata and Presley will be in Pittsburgh through the 2016 season at the least. Marte and Grossman provide extra options in the mean time. There’s no rush for someone like Rojas to make it to the majors, which means the Pirates can take their time developing him, and hoping his raw abilities translates to in-game success. If one of these options works out, and joins the ranks of Bell, Grossman, Marte, Tabata, and Presley, the Pirates could be looking at a lot of depth from the outfield position, which should ensure that they are able to at least fill the two corner positions for the long term.