First Pitch: The Best Problem to Have

Now that the Pittsburgh Pirates have locked up Andrew McCutchen to a long term deal, the focus in the outfield shifts to which players will step up to claim the final two outfield spots. The Pirates have a lot of options in the upper levels, but no one has really stepped up to claim a spot long term.

Jose Tabata and Alex Presley will start the 2012 season on either side of McCutchen. Neither player has been established in the majors.

Presley got his first shot at starting in 2011, and hit for a .298/.339/.465 line, with four homers in 215 at-bats. Presley has combined for a .316/.371/.474 line in 614 at-bats over the last two years at the AAA level. He had a breakout season in 2010 where he combined for a .320/.373/.494 line in 518 at-bats.

The 26 year old outfielder was a huge surprise in 2010. It was an even bigger surprise when he carried his numbers over to the AAA level in 2011 and had success in the majors. But because of the nature of Presley’s turnaround, his numbers will be met with skepticism until he puts up those numbers over a full season.

Tabata got off to a good start in his major league career, hitting for a .299/.346/.400 line in 405 at-bats during his rookie season. He had some strong stretches during the 2011 season, but was largely inconsistent, and ended up with a .266/.349/.362 line. Part of that can be chalked up to injuries. Despite the lower average, Tabata managed to increase his on-base percentage, which is important since he serves as a top of the order hitter for the Pirates. He’s under team control through the 2019 season, although the Pirates can buy out his deal prior to the 2017 season if he doesn’t pan out.

In the minors the Pirates have two highly rated outfield prospects in the upper levels. Starling Marte is a strong defensive center fielder who has really stepped up at the plate over the last year. In 2011 he hit for a .332/.370/.500 line with 12 homers in 536 at-bats at the AA level. He should make the jump to AAA in 2012, where he will probably be given a full season, due to the presence of Presley and Tabata in the majors. Marte has the defense to move Andrew McCutchen out of center field, and has the overall package to be an Andrew McCutchen-lite.

Robbie Grossman also had a breakout year in 2011, hitting for a .294/.418/.451 line with 13 homers in 490 at-bats in high-A. Grossman should move up to AA in 2012, which will be a big test for the 22 year old outfielder.

Then there’s Josh Bell, who hasn’t seen a professional pitch, but might have the highest ceiling of the entire group. Bell is a pure hitter, with the potential for plus hitting and plus power from both sides of the plate. He should start in West Virginia this year, and because of his advanced approach at the plate, he could move quickly through the minors.

The Pirates have a lot of talent, and only two long term outfield spots to fill. That’s definitely a good problem to have, and probably the best problem you could come across in baseball. Of course the “problem” will lead to discussions about how the Pirates should trade one of the above players to fill another need. It could also lead to a shorter leash for guys like Presley or Tabata if they’re struggling in the majors while Starling Marte is tearing it up in AAA.

As far as trades go, the Pirates have a lot of talent, but two-thirds of their outfield is still surrounded by question marks. The only thing the depth at the position does is increases the chances that they’ll erase those question marks in a year or two. I think the amount of talent in the system will definitely help fill those spots. Presley and Tabata will be pushed by Marte in AAA. Marte will be pushed by Grossman. Grossman will be pushed by Bell. Bell will be pushed by Mel Rojas Jr., Willy Garcia, Gregory Polanco, and any other lower level outfielder that emerges in the next year or two.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates beat the Yankees 7-4 today.

**Andrew McCutchen was meant to be a Pirate.

**The hits keep coming for Matt Hague, who has been doing great so far this Spring. Free Matt Hague.

**I posted some video of Rinku Singh today, and asked whether he’s a prospect. He definitely has a lot of good movement on his pitches. In the video is Singh going up against Harold Ramirez, who received $1.05 M from the Pirates in 2011.

**The Pirates will play a “B” game tomorrow at Pirate City. Charlie Morton is expected to pitch, among others. I’ll be covering the game live on the site.

**Matt Bandi has a handy chart looking at the long term status of each position for the Pirates.

**Baseball America released their top right handed pitching prospects. Gerrit Cole comes in at number six, while Jameson Taillon follows at seventh. Luis Heredia comes in at 36th.