After the promotion of Austin Meadows to Altoona today, I got a lot of questions about his future in the organization. This included his ETA, how he fits in to the future plans of the Pirates, and his future upside.
The obvious thing here is that the Pirates have no immediate need for Meadows in the majors. They don’t even have a huge need for him in the next few years. Their outfield is made up of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco. Those three are all under team control together for three more seasons. McCutchen is eligible for free agency following the 2018 season, while Polanco is under team control through 2020, and Marte is under control through 2021.
Meadows is one of the best prospects in baseball. He’s got the potential for an impact bat, he can play center field, and if he needs to move to a corner, he’s got the power potential to handle one of those spots. As I noted today, his power numbers were down this year, although that’s mostly due to the very pitcher friendly Florida State League. He made solid contact all year, and showed off a good amount of raw power that will eventually translate in the game as he gets older. The power has already started to translate this year, and might be more noticeable in a neutral league.
The Pirates are now in a special situation with their top outfield prospect. He’s very young for where he’s at in the minors, and is far from a finished project, which means they can take their time with him. They can keep him in Altoona for a full season in 2016, keep him in Indianapolis for a full season in 2017, and then give him a half season and call him up in 2018 right after he turns 23 years old. Even then, they probably won’t need him as a starter, unless one of McCutchen, Marte, or Polanco goes down with an injury. Or, if Josh Bell doesn’t make the successful jump to the majors, Meadows could take a similar path to first base just to get in the majors sooner.
But the truth is that Meadows really only has a long-term future in Pittsburgh if one of two things happen — the Pirates let Andrew McCutchen walk as a free agent after the 2018 season, or they trade one of Marte and Polanco by that point. The latter doesn’t make much sense, as Marte will be making $7.5 M in 2018, and $10 M in 2019, which are very affordable prices for a guy currently putting up 3-4+ WAR per season. Polanco will be entering his first year of arbitration in 2018, assuming he doesn’t sign an extension before then.
If things keep going the way they’re going, then entering the 2018 season the Pirates will have two young outfielders in the majors who will be reaching their prime years while making very affordable salaries, and still having a few years of control remaining. Dealing Marte or Polanco at that point might be a lesser equivalent to dealing McCutchen now if the Pirates had a top outfield prospect to replace him. But then the other side of that is letting McCutchen walk, letting Meadows take over, and letting the future ride on another young, future impact outfielder while banking on an MVP entering his decline years.
The third option here would be using Meadows as a trade chip, which would obviously be the best choice if the Pirates extended McCutchen. If that happened, it would only make sense to deal Meadows away, since he’d be wasted in the Pirates’ organization, and wouldn’t have a role to fill. Then again, maybe the NL adopts the DH by that point (fingers crossed!), and this entire conversation is moot, allowing the Pirates to rotate their outfielders in and out of the DH spot to keep them fresh.
Of course, all of this is a conversation for a future day. We’re actually nowhere near close to having to worry about any of this. The Pirates could actually wait until the end of 2018 to make a decision on all of this, and see how things play out at that point. That three-year period is a long time. Three years ago, the Pirates were still a losing team, in the middle of the worst second-half collapse in sports. Andrew McCutchen wasn’t an MVP yet. Gregory Polanco was just breaking out in low-A ball. Starling Marte had just made his MLB debut. Oh yeah, and Austin Meadows was a junior in high school, about to enter his senior year, to get drafted the following summer by the Pirates.
The Pirates have an interesting scenario with Meadows. He’s young and talented, but has a lot of upside and untapped potential. They can afford to keep him down for a few years, and don’t need to rush him at all. But his eventual call to the majors will depend on what they do with their current outfield. They’ve got three years to make a decision there, and as noted above, a lot can happen in three years. For that reason, don’t be surprised if the development goes slow and steady from here, as the Pirates have plenty of time to fully develop Meadows in the minors.
**We’ll be announcing a new Pirates writer tomorrow, providing additional coverage down the stretch as we look to expand the big league focus in September. This isn’t replacing anyone, but adding an additional writer for more analysis. I’m very excited about the new addition, and think he will bring an excellent perspective to the site.
**Prospect Watch: Two Hits For Meadows in Altoona Debut, Indy Going to Playoffs. A good debut for Meadows and a live report from Wilbur Miller.
**Austin Meadows, Tyler Eppler, and Montana DuRapau Promoted to Altoona. All of today’s minor league moves, along with analysis on Meadows, Eppler, and DuRapau.
**Steven Brault and Chad Kuhl Carry Curve Down the Stretch. Sean McCool with a great article on two of the most successful starters for Altoona the last few months.
**Pirates Call-Up Pedro Florimon, Deolis Guerra to the 60-Day DL. Expected move that couldn’t happen until today.