Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Spring Training Preview: The Outfield

The Pittsburgh Pirates will be kicking off Spring Training this Thursday. To get ready for Spring Training, we will be previewing one set of positions each day this week, with the final group coming on Thursday. We already previewed the infield yesterday. Today we will take a look at the outfield.

The Pirates have two of the three outfield spots set for the short and long-term. They should fill the final spot by mid-season when Gregory Polanco arrives. Until then, they will give time to unproven guys, hoping one will realize his potential, which is the same approach they took in 2013. Here are the roster predictions based on the current Spring Training invitees.

The Starters

The Pirates look to be entering the 2014 season with the same outfield formation as they had in 2013. Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte will definitely be back for center and left field, respectively. I don’t need to go into detail on why those two have guaranteed spots on the roster. The right field spot will once again be up in the air, and once again the Pirates are going with a group of question marks, led by Jose Tabata and Travis Snider.

Last year Snider had the edge over Tabata as far as playing time early in the season. This year it seems that Tabata should have the upper hand. He’s more expensive ($3 M vs $1.2 M), he had better numbers in 2013, and the Pirates have a long-term commitment to Tabata. He’s done more to earn the playing time, and there’s more of a long-term reward if he works out.

Snider should still get some playing time, and one final shot to prove what he can do. He started off well last year during the first month of the season, then quickly fell off the table. That came right around the time that his toe injury occurred. The 2014 season will give the chance for Snider to show if his post-April struggles in 2013 were all due to the toe injury.

Bench and Depth

I project Snider and Tabata to make the Opening Day roster, since both players are out of options and making more than the league minimum. Behind those two, the Pirates have Jaff Decker and Chris Dickerson as backup plans. I don’t think the Pirates will carry five outfielders, unless they somehow go with Gaby Sanchez as a full time starter at first base. Because of this, I see Decker and Dickerson starting the year in Triple-A, with a chance to make it to the majors early in the season if Snider or Tabata struggle or get injured (with the latter being a very real possibility, considering the history of those two players).

Andrew Lambo could also factor into the outfield mix, although I think he’s the front runner for the first base platoon. If the Pirates add an external first base option, then Lambo would likely go to Triple-A, where he could serve as depth for first base or right field. Josh Harrison could also serve as an emergency outfielder, assuming he makes the bench in the infield.

Gregory Polanco

Last year the Pirates didn’t have good results in right field. Jose Tabata and Travis Snider both struggled on the field, and dealt with injuries. Tabata started hitting well in August, but that was around the time that Starling Marte went down with an injury. The result was that the Pirates had to go out and trade for Marlon Byrd.

That shouldn’t be necessary in 2014. If Tabata, Snider, Decker, Dickerson, and Lambo don’t work out, then the Pirates have Gregory Polanco in the wings. Polanco is the top prospect in the system, and one of the top prospects in the game. He profiles as an impact player, and his advanced approach at the plate gives him a good chance to make a seamless jump to the majors when he’s ready, similar to what happened with Andrew McCutchen.

Polanco will need some time to get re-acquainted with right field. He will also need some time against upper level pitching. He did well in the Dominican against the equivalent of Triple-A pitching, but he’s going to need a bigger sample size to show he’s ready. The key thing here is that Polanco profiles as an impact player down the line, which means the Pirates should delay him until he avoids Super Two status. No matter how optimistic you are about Polanco’s immediate future in 2014, one extra month of his service in 2014 is no where near worth the cost that the Pirates would have to pay in the long-run if Polanco becomes an impact player with Super Two status.

Expect Polanco to arrive as early as mid-June. If one of the other outfielders are hitting at that point, then I’d still expect the Pirates to make a switch. One of the things the Pirates have lacked in previous years has been a strong bench. If Jose Tabata is continuing his late-2013 hitting in 2014, then he’d be an outstanding fourth outfielder on a contending team, and a guy you’d want to turn to if one of the other outfielders goes down with an injury. Polanco’s upside is bigger than anyone else on the team, which means he should be the starter when he’s ready at mid-season.

Projected Outfield

LF – Starling Marte

CF – Andrew McCutchen

RF – Jose Tabata

Bench – Travis Snider, Josh Harrison

  • It is interesting that everyone accepts Marte as having cemented himself in LF. I am not posting to be negative on his future, but there are things to look at from his 2013 season, like his batting line after mid-may (it’s like a .260 BA, .730 OPS and 100+K’s in 370 AB), his splits between LHB and RHB, and any lasting effects from his hand injury. I am thinking that Marte is likely to be someone that continues to get better, and it’s something I am looking at going into 2014. I don’t think we’ve seen the fully-formed potential of marte, is it a .260avg, .310 obp, 20HR, 30SB, 160K guy? Is he best at leadoff, or somewhere else in the lineup?

  • Couldn’t have said it any better jon. You might have done that with a future star in 1955,but it just isn’t done today.

    • I always think about a guy named Albert Pujols when I hear people so concerned about draft pedigree since he wasn’t taken till the 13th round. A couple of stories I read said he was taken late because they couldn’t confirm his age. But he was drafted in 1999 and started in the majors in 2001. The Cardinals took a chance because he could hit and played him at third and the outfield to get his bat in the line up and the rest is history. When you are not the Yankees or dodgers you have to try your players. Small markets teams just can’t buy championships so they have to try to stay strong and win when they can. If you can stay competitive and make the playoffs you always have a chance. But if you sell the farm saying we only need to add these couple of (usually very expensive) pieces to win the WS and even if you win one you might end losing 20 seasons in a row.

    • Not sure if this was directed at me, but McCutchen had close to 900 plate appearances at AAA. That’s not exactly ancient history.

      Anyway, my overarching point was that, if Tabata is producing, and there are no injuries to Marte and Cutch, I would not promote if he’s posting a pedestrian OPS. I’m not saying there are no circumstances under which I would promote him, but that I just wouldn’t bench a starter who is hitting well at a corner defensive position, where defense is not as important.

      Thanks for the conversation everyone.

      • ” Defense is not as important ” only applies when you have an offensive player who can produce more runs than their ” not important ” defense allows. Tabata has had played enough at this level to show he probably doesn’t have that type of ability. Yes, while Polanco hasn’t played at this level yet, he is a really good defensive player which generally always stays with you no matter what level you play. However his potential on offense begs that he be given the chance to be that impact player that the scouts and organization he has. Jose Tabata is a good major league player but has had ample time to prove he should be an everyday player but he really hasn’t done that.

        • It will be hard to generate significant WAR (in my opinion) based solely on defense and baserunning if he is to play RF at PNC. LF or CF would be much different, but those are taken.

          Anyway, I’m not saying he shouldn’t be given a chance eventually. I agree the sky is the limit on his potential. I just don’t think June is the right time to promote him if they’ve got a RF’er who is hitting, and he’s only experienced modest success at AAA.

  • Every player is unproven at the major league level until he gets his shot. That’s why I don’t understand so many comments referring to that label. When a guy like Polanco is rated a 5 tool guy by everyone who actually gets paid to know these things you don’t leave him in the minors until he hits .400 with a .950 ops and then say I guess he is ready now. It just doesn’t work that way. And if anyone thinks someone hitting 30+ home runs across a couple levels of minor league ball in a season does mean anything check out how many guys out of thousands of minor league players have done it. Sure nothing is guaranteed and its possible Polanco and Lambo could fail. They actually have done things in the minor leagues that earns a player at least a shot at the big dance.

  • i get annoyed the script gets so skinny. 1 word per line is hard to read.

  • Every time I look at your the current Spring Training invitees list , it reminds me just how hard it is to make a Major League ball team . Lots of players to few positions . !!!!

  • I disagree that Polanco should just automatically be given RF “when he’s ready.” In the very circumstantial case that Tabata is hitting that .850 OPS when June rolls around like he was in August/September of last year, there is no case to be made for Polanco, barring an injury.

    Simply put, the more AAA experience Polanco has before coming up, the better. Even if that means spending all of 2014 there.

    I would trade someone before benching a player hitting that well.

    • The case to be made for Polanco is that he profiles as an all around better player than Tabata. Even if Tabata is hitting well, Polanco exceeds his value in defense and base running.

    • Tabata will not have an .850 OPS when June rolls around. Even if he did by some miracle, he still goes to the bench or is traded when Polanco is ready. You think Polanco is going to get delayed because of Jose Tabata? Not going to happen!

      • As I stated, I would trade him before I benched him in favor of an unproven rookie.

        How does his .762 OPS from Altoona translate into MLB numbers? That baserunning skill Tim points out as being great doesn’t help much if he can’t get on.

        All I’m saying is that if Polanco’s humming along at .762 in AAA while Tabata has .850 in MLB, I would not bench Tabata in order to subtract offense but add defense at a non premium position. Sure, I’d trade Tabata and bring up Polanco, but not bench him. The list of guys who can have a .762 OPS at AAA and suck in the MLB is long and distinguished.

        Sorry, but I don’t want to have to jerk Polanco around between AAA and MLB like what happened to Travis Snider or even Pedro Alvarez.

        • I think you’re too attached to that .762 number. Polanco had a .733 OPS in his first two months in Altoona. At the end of the season he took off with an .833 OPS, before moving up to Indianapolis.

          The minor leagues aren’t about putting up great season long numbers. They’re about adjusting to a new talent level, then moving up. Polanco could return to Double-A in 2014 and dominate and you could feel good about the numbers. But that would be worthless, since it looks like he already adjusted to the level. It’s just that the entire season numbers don’t reflect that.

          • Maybe so, but you are predicting a June promotion, which means he’ll have less than 2 months to “adjust” to AAA pitching, and then make the biggest jump there is. How long will his “adjustment” be in the majors?

            You could be right. I’ll admit that. But if Tabby is producing at the same clip he was last year, when he had a 1.2 WAR in about a half season’s worth or full time, I think it sends a bad message to replace that with a guy who, realistically, I don’t think is going to do better in his rookie year.

            • He has already started the adjustment with his work in the Dominican. That was against the equivalent of Triple-A pitching, and he did pretty well there.

              As far as the initial production, Starling Marte had a 1.1 WAR in his debut over the final two months. He missed a few weeks of action, and didn’t exactly light the world on fire. So it wouldn’t be hard for Polanco to match Tabata’s production from last year.

              Again, one reason why Tabata only had a 1.2 WAR, despite the offensive numbers, is because he has poor defensive and base running value. Polanco has the edge there, and that’s something which easily translates over to the majors. So as far as overall value, it’s not hard to imagine Polanco matching what Tabata is doing, even if Tabata is hitting well.

          • I guess one just has to see Polanco in action to understand Tim.

    • Gregen, I’m with you. Yes Polanco has way more potential than Tabby at this point and will probably have the better career. But it’s funny that some commenters are saying since the Bucs are now contenders, they can’t go into a season with an unproven Lambo as 75% of their 1B. But if the Bucs are doing well in June, which I assume they would be if Tabata is having the season that’s your underlying assumption, they should yank him out of the lineup to get an unproven Polanco into the middle of a playoff chase? No way they switch horses midstream, unless there’s a reason to. And if Tabata actually puts a whole healthy year together, the trade options should be pretty good for him.

      • a 4th outfielder that is high quality is an enormous advantage in a pennant race. These guys can get scheduled rest for one thing with no real drop. Also, you have a late innings PH or PR when needed so your bench is stronger. If Tabata is playing well and Polanco is up then it makes PIT much better and deeper. No need to trade Tabata OR keep polanco down. Tim is laying out the best case scenario of having Tabata play at a high level AND having Polanco arrive in June. At that point Tabata could still get 3 starts per week and some late inning situational playing time, thus keeping him sharp. At the same time the starters get good rest helping them stay sharp and injury free for the pennant chase.
        That is a marvelous position to be in.

        • swamp, are you suggesting a Tabata/Polanco platoon to get Tabby 3 starts a week? Otherwise, I don’t see Cutch sitting more than once a month or Marte more than once every 3 weeks. And while I value a 4th OF, I value trading at peak value more (sorry for all of the values). I think Snider and Decker could handle the 4th spot

        • Once Polanco is promoted, and if Cutch and Marte are healthy, no way Tabata or Snider or anyone else in Pirates system will take 3 starts/week from them. The Pirates legitimately view this OF pairing as one of, if not the, best in all of MLB. All are young, gold glove caliber defensively and excel on the bases, too. One is an MVP, the other is a budding superstar and the last one may be better than the first two. Count on seeing them together in the field for 9 innings nearly every night for the next several years.

    • If Tabata hasn’t gone on the DL by June I’d trade him and his glass hamstrings if he had a .950 OPS.

      • So NH trades Tabby and Polanco comes up and struggles to the tune of .650 OPS. Would you hang Huntington in effigy or hang him right here in Pittsburgh? Yeah, I know Polanco would cover that postage stamp of a right field at PNC and have flawless base running both times a week he gets on base. But come on, that old saying, if it ain’t broke and you’re in a pennant race, don’t fix it would apply.

        There’s no harm in a guy getting a full season at ABs at AAA. Now if Tabby, Snider, et al, are struggling like they did the first 5 months last year, I’ll drive to Indy myself to pick up the toolshed.

        I love that our 3 biggest debates right now are:
        1) can the Bucs bring AJ back to give us 3 top of the rotation guys and a couple of #3s for a rotation or might we have to settle for a #4 guy in there?
        2) if they don’t do anything else to address 1B they have to give a former top prospect who’s still age appropriate and just hit 34 HRs last year a shot?
        3) should they bring a top 15 OF prospect up mid year even if we don’t need him?


        • This boils down to you making a results-oriented analysis and me making a process-oriented analysis. I didn’t say anything about Polanco. I’m not a big Tabata fan, and whether is 2014 or 2015 (or 16 or 17 or 18), Tabata is ultimately a good 4th OF. Nice to have, but while he won’t be expensive he won’t be a bargain either. Alls I mean is, if he’s playing well and is healthy, deal Tabata. I’ll worry about Polanco later.

  • Fangraphs released a Top 100 list. http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/2014-top-100-prospects/


    Polanco and Taillon in Top 20 (17 & 20 respectively)
    Glasnow #43 and Meadows #48 to give Bucs 4 in top 50
    Hanson and Kingham 74 & 75 to (barely) give Bucs 6 in the Top 75
    McGuire #90

    Bucs tied for most overall on list (7) with Red Sox and Cubs
    Bucs have good balance, are in Top 5 of both Pitchers (3) and Hitters (4). Twins and Astros also in both Top 5’s but Bucs have one more prospect than each of them.