Last year the Pirates had Matt Joyce as their fourth outfielder. Joyce is a true outfielder, playing no other position during his MLB career. He came into camp on a minor league deal, and made the team on Opening Day due to a strong spring.
That carried over to the regular season, where Joyce put up a .242/.403/.463 line in 293 plate appearances. His .375 wOBA and 137 wRC+ were the best marks on the team. The performance allowed him to cash in this past offseason, signing a two-year, $11 M deal with Oakland. That also left the Pirates without a true fourth outfielder.
For years, the Pirates have been adding versatility to their minor league prospects. A middle infielder might learn third base, or even move to the outfield if he’s athletic enough. A first baseman will get a shot at either third base or the corner outfield spots. The goal is to give more opportunities for guys to make the majors. Look no further than Jose Osuna as the recent example of how that works out.
Osuna was originally an outfielder, but moved to first base when he moved to the US, due to poor defense. Granted, it didn’t help that he was always at the same level as guys like Gregory Polanco, Josh Bell (when he was originally an outfielder), and Willy Garcia. By the 2015 season, Bell was moved to first base as his primary position, and Osuna needed to move back to the outfield in order to have a path to the majors. And now, he’s in the majors because the Pirates have a need for an outfielder.
Several years ago it was determined that the outfield wasn’t the best choice for Osuna. Now he’s at the position because it’s his best shot at the majors. It’s a similar story with Adam Frazier, or Josh Harrison back when he was a super utility player. The downside to this approach is that more positions doesn’t equal good defense at all of those positions. Osuna wasn’t a good defender in the outfield when he originally moved off the position, and he didn’t become a better defender when he moved back.
But then again, you don’t need to be a utility player to have bad defense in the outfield. “Real” outfielders can have the same problem. Remember Matt Joyce? The guy who left the Pirates without a “real” fourth outfielder? His defense was horrible last year. Masked by his offensive production, Joyce had a -27.3 UZR/150 in right field. It’s a small sample size, mostly fueled by poor range, but it also matches his recent career trends.
If the Pirates would have brought back Joyce, they’d still have bad defense in the outfield. It’s possible that his offense would be better than it is right now with Oakland (.170/.241/.255). But they’d have no difference with their current defensive issues if they had “Real outfielder” Matt Joyce or utility players like Osuna and Adam Frazier — with the latter possibly being the best outfielder of the three, but still providing negative value defensively, and now on the disabled list.
That’s not to say the Pirates only had one choice for their outfield. They pursued Angel Pagan, who isn’t good defensively in center field, but can still handle a corner spot. Pagan is planning on sitting out the 2017 season, and all reports say that he didn’t want a bench spot. His chance for offense and good defense warrant a starting role. Few teams, if any at all, have a guy like that coming off the bench. Having a starter quality guy who can produce on both sides of the ball as a fourth outfielder is a luxury that few teams have.
The more likely scenario for teams filling a fourth outfield role is that you have to choose between a good hitter with poor defense (like Matt Joyce) or a good defender who can’t hit (a Gorkys Hernandez type). The utility players ideally fall into the former category, assuming they can hit. That’s been the case so far for Frazier and Osuna (with a small sample size for Osuna). Things haven’t looked good on either side of the ball for John Jaso.
The problem with the Pirates outfield right now isn’t an issue with utility players versus “real outfielders.” The problem with the outfield is a microcosm of the problem with the team right now.
The Pirates have a bad offense this year so far. They rank in the bottom third of the National League in wOBA and wRC+. A quick look at their 2016 leaders in those categories will tell the story:
The top four producers aren’t on the team right now. Four of the next six are either on the disabled list, or playing below (or well below) their 2016 numbers. There are other players who are exceeding their 2016 totals (Josh Harrison being the biggest one not on this list), but it’s extremely difficult, and maybe impossible, to make up for what we see on the list above.
So a replacement for Starling Marte needs to have offense, because the Pirates are in big need of offense right now.
But then there’s the defense. The Pirates currently rank dead last in the NL in defensive runs saved. They rank dead last in Plus/Minus. They rank 9th in the league in UZR, with their range and arm giving them credit, but the errors lowering their score. This has been a bad defensive team, in part because they’ve got some poor defenders at certain spots, but also because their good defenders aren’t producing as usual.
That means your replacement for Starling Marte needs to not only have good offense, but good defense. The best option would be Angel Pagan, but Pagan isn’t playing, and even if they could sign him now, he’s probably not going to be ready until June.
Is There Help on the Way?
The Pirates have someone in the minors who could provide both offense and defense down the line. Austin Meadows is the long-term replacement for Andrew McCutchen, and could eventually be an impact player. But he’s not there yet on the offensive side. The situation with Meadows reminds me a bit of the situation last year with Tyler Glasnow, where fans looked at the upside as something that existed right now, and viewed a guy who could solve all of their problems right now. I’d say Meadows is closer to Jameson Taillon. He’s not ready in April, but might be ready by the end of May or early June (keep in mind, Taillon didn’t make his big switch to the two-seam fastball as his primary fastball until around this time).
Until Meadows arrives, the Pirates have two choices. They can go with a stronger defender in the outfield with no bat and help solve their defensive issues. Or they could go with the utility players and shoot for offense while sacrificing defense — basically getting similar results compared to what they had from Matt Joyce last year, only without a “real outfielder” putting up the numbers. The problem is that the Pirates need both offense and defense, and it’s very difficult to get both from a bench player (which is why they’re bench players in the first place).
The Pirates are going with utility players, going for offense and sacrificing defense. The internal options for the opposite approach would be Danny Ortiz, or calling up Meadows just for his glove, and possibly doing some damage to his offensive development in the process by creating some bad habits.
The Pirates’ usage of utility players is going to be viewed in a bad light, as they absolutely can’t solve the current problems with the team. But the real issue isn’t the utility players. It’s the actual problems the Pirates have on offense and defense right now, which go well beyond the use of utility players, and don’t have a central reason for blame or an easy solution. I’ll dig into those issues a little deeper this week.