During the 2012 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates had a few options in right field, and none of them worked out. Heading into the 2013 season, it looked like they would solve this problem by going with a quantity of starting candidates, giving them a chance that one could break out. They traded for Travis Snider last year at the deadline. Jose Tabata was returning, with inconsistent production under his belt. They had Alex Presley on reserve in Triple-A. Jerry Sands was one of the top pieces that came in return for Joel Hanrahan, and looked like the top alternative to Snider or Tabata heading into the season.
Even with those options, the Pirates ran into right field problems again this year. For the second straight season, the issues in right broke up the first base platoon, forcing Garrett Jones into right field, and forcing Gaby Sanchez to play full-time at first, when he should only be a platoon option.
Snider and Tabata started the year in a sort of platoon. I say “sort of” because neither one of them was good at hitting left-handed pitchers, with Tabata having the slight edge with his career numbers, but lacking the dominant numbers you’d want to see from a right-handed hitter in a platoon.
At the start of the season things looked great for Snider. He had a .300/.382/.417 line in 60 at-bats during the first month of the season. Things quickly went downhill from there. Over the next three months he posted a .192/.254/.291 line in 182 at-bats. That ended on July 27th when Snider was placed on the disabled list with a toe injury. The injury was described as something Snider was dealing with for some time. It’s hard to say if this led to the horrible numbers after April. Snider returned in September and didn’t do much better, although he did have two key home runs in a 3-for-19 campaign, mostly as a pinch hitter.
The Jose Tabata half of the “platoon” had the exact opposite season. Tabata was horrible in the first month of the year, with a .178/.260/.289 line in 45 April at-bats. He caught fire in May, hitting for a .389/.436/.556 line in 36 at-bats, yielding most of the playing time to Snider. Tabata went down at the end of May with a strained left oblique, and didn’t return until the beginning of July. He started off strong, with a .941 OPS in his first ten games back. However, Tabata went on a cold streak right after the All-Star break.
August was an interesting month for Tabata. He hit for an .851 OPS in 84 at-bats, getting time as a regular starter. There was a strange phenomenon where he would immediately go on a hot streak when someone else was called up, whether that was Alex Presley, Felix Pie, or Andrew Lambo. But it could have just been that he stayed hot the entire time, regardless of who was coming up. That happened again in September, as he carried his hot streak over with a .315/.351/.493 line in 73 at-bats. Overall, Tabata had a .312/.357/.490 line in 157 at-bats over the final two months of the season.
The Pirates tried some other players in right field throughout the season. Alex Presley got a few starts, then was later traded to Minnesota for Justin Morneau. Andrew Lambo had a hot bat in the minors, but didn’t get much playing time in the majors due to the hot streak from Tabata. The Pirates even resorted to starting Russell Martin in right field early in the season, and gave Brandon Inge five starts. They couldn’t turn to Jerry Sands, as he was struggling in Triple-A, and also injured.
They solved the right field problem in late August when they traded for Marlon Byrd. Byrd passed through waivers to the Pirates, surprisingly making it past the Cincinnati Reds. In exchange, the Pirates gave up Dilson Herrera and Vic Black. Byrd hit for a .318/.357/.486 line in 107 at-bats. His production came at a key time, as Starling Marte was out with an injury. That allowed the Pirates to use Byrd and the hot hitting Tabata down the stretch. Byrd’s biggest moment might have been the solo home run off Johnny Cueto in the Wild Card game, which started the unraveling of Cueto, and eventually led to the Pirates advancing to the NLDS.
Byrd is a free agent this off-season, and it’s doubtful that the Pirates could bring him back. He’s going to be looking for a multi-year deal after his career year. That type of deal doesn’t make sense for the Pirates, since their top hitting prospect, Gregory Polanco, is due to arrive in the second half of the 2014 season. Polanco is the future. He might not play right field, but he will be the third outfielder.
Polanco is a potential impact player with a ton of tools. He’s got speed that makes him a weapon on the bases, and allows him to cover a ton of ground in the outfield. He also has a strong arm, which can allow him to play any position in the outfield going forward. He shows an advanced approach at the plate, hits for average, gets on base, and has a lot of power potential. Polanco already hits for some home run power, but there is room in his frame to allow you to dream of 30 homers per year. Even if that doesn’t happen, his ability to get on base and hit for average will help set the table in the lineup.
Because of his advanced approach, and all of his tools, it’s hard to see Polanco missing as a prospect. There’s risk with any prospect, but the risk here is minimal. Even if one part of his game doesn’t work out, Polanco draws value all over the field. If he doesn’t hit for a strong average, he’s still going to get on base. If he doesn’t hit for power, he still has plus speed on the bases, and plus defense. And if it all comes together, then the Pirates could have the best outfield in the majors with Polanco, Starling Marte, and Andrew McCutchen.
The question about the future isn’t a long-term question, but a short-term question. The Pirates need to find someone to bridge the gap until Polanco is ready. That could come from a stop-gap free agent, although they might have trouble finding quality on a one year deal. It could come from internal options like Jose Tabata and Andrew Lambo. Either way, the Pirates need to cover about 2.5-4 months of the 2014 season until Polanco is ready to come up.