PITTSBURGH – Starling Marte’s suspension has lasted five games so far. In that time, the Pirates have started John Jaso and Jose Osuna two times each in right field, with one start going to Adam Frazier. The common trend here is that none of these guys are really outfielders.
Sure, Osuna started off as an outfielder. Then he moved to first base due to defensive issues, and only moved back to the outfield when he was blocked at first base by Josh Bell, preventing him from continuing to move up in the minors. Frazier moved to the outfield part time in 2015 in Altoona, due to all of the other options the Pirates had in the infield at the time. And Jaso has worked in the outfield before, playing nine games at the position in the majors prior to this season. But the Pirates don’t have a true outfielder for their right field spot.
This was the plan going into the season. The Pirates had so many super utility types that they decided they would be better off going for versatility, rather than focusing on a guy who could play the true outfield spot. That came back to bite them when Marte went down for 80 games with a suspension for PEDs, leaving the Pirates in this situation for about half a season. And it looks like they’ll continue to progress with this approach.
“If we felt that we were best served by someone that had outfielder next to their name on a roster, we would certainly do that,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said on Sunday. “John Jaso showed athleticism in Spring Training. He actually ran a couple of balls down in St. Louis. Frazier has obviously been out there a bunch in terms of Triple-A experience. Alen Hanson’s been out there a bunch in terms of Triple-A experience. We’re exploring external options and if we find something that we believes makes us better, we’d certainly look to move in that direction. As we’ve done in the past, sometimes we have to do things somewhat unconventionally. We feel comfortable with our guys out there.”
Huntington said that they like the group they have, and that the Pirates are looking for external options. However, he said that trades are hard to come by at this time of the year.
“For those that are curious, go back and look at how many significant trades are made in April,” Huntington said. “Typically, it’s at the end of May and typically it’s an overpay. There are more teams that are open in their intent at this point in time than there was 10 years ago or 15 years ago, but we like this group and if we thought there was a way to upgrade upon this group that was realistic and practical, we absolutely would do it. We haven’t found that.”
Part of the plan during the offseason was that the Pirates had Austin Meadows in Triple-A, likely arriving at some point this season. Unfortunately, Meadows was not going to be ready this early, and is not ready. I didn’t need Huntington to say that to know it’s true. But he said it anyways.
“We love Austin Meadows,” Huntington said. “Austin Meadows is not the answer right now. Our hope is to have him ready to be an answer for us at some point this season.”
So the Pirates will move forward with a rotation of players who aren’t really outfielders, hoping that the group works out well enough that they won’t need an external option, or hoping that Meadows is ready at some point to take over.
Starling Marte’s Downtime
Huntington said that players on suspension either spend time in the MLB city, or they go to the Spring Training site. In Starling Marte’s case, the Pirates are aiming for the latter.
“We’re working toward Starling getting to our Spring Training site,” Huntington said. “He can play in extended games once we feel that’s appropriate. We’ll be able to keep him as sharp as we possibly can until we get him out on the 15-day rehab about July 4.”
Marte should be able to return to the majors on July 18th. Extended Spring Training goes until early June. So the biggest challenge for the Pirates would be keeping Marte sharp in the time between the end of the Extended Spring Training schedule, and the start of his rehab. That’s right after the draft, and there are usually intrasquad games during that time to get drafted players up to speed, so that could be an option to keep him sharp.
In his first game back in center field, Andrew McCutchen ranged far to make two catches, and after the second one, was shown shouting that “This is [his] spot.”
I could write an entire column on the situation, discussing how Marte is the best center fielder the Pirates have, and how McCutchen has been declining defensively over the last few years, and how the Pirates were absolutely correct in making the switch, even if the response was that they somehow wronged McCutchen. That article would also include the fact that you want to see this type of attitude from McCutchen, since you always want to see a player thinking he can play a spot. At the same time, McCutchen is wrong if he thinks that he should be there over Marte.
Huntington discussed McCutchen’s reaction on the field, and what went into the decision to make the switch, noting that the Pirates simply thought Marte was better.
“We moved [McCutchen] because we felt like we had a guy that was going to make our outfield better, not because we didn’t think Andrew could play center field,” Huntington said. “The narrative to the contrary to that is wrong. We believed Marte was our best center fielder and we believed Andrew was our best right fielder given that construct. We believe Andrew can play a good center field and we’re supportive. He plays with energy. He’s playing with passion and that’s a great thing.”
The interesting thing will be seeing how all of this plays out when Marte returns, and whether the Pirates move McCutchen back to right field.