During the 2014 season, the Pirates had the highest rated outfield in the National League by WAR, with a 16.9 fWAR. That was in large part due to a combined 11.1 WAR from Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte, along with other production from guys like Travis Snider, Josh Harrison, and very little production from Gregory Polanco.
The future of the outfield looked bright. Polanco was just making his way to the majors, with tons of upside. McCutchen had four years of team control remaining. The Pirates had just signed Marte to an extension prior to that season, keeping him under team control through the 2021 season. And in the wings, they had Austin Meadows starting his pro career, with hopes of taking over and keeping the outfield going.
It was the Dream Outfield, with the dream being that the Pirates would continue having the top outfield for years to come.
Unfortunately, that dream hasn’t come true.
McCutchen has dealt with inconsistencies in the three years since, seeing slumps that have lasted for months. Marte was consistent until his suspension this year. Polanco hasn’t come close to his upside, with injuries derailing him. And Meadows isn’t ready this year, although 2017 was only supposed to be a best-case scenario for him arriving.
We’re now to the point where the clock for the Dream Outfield is close to expiring. McCutchen has a year of control remaining, and injuries to Polanco and Meadows raise some additional questions. To get a feel for the outfield moving forward, let’s take a look at each individual situation.
Starling Marte – We’re going to start with Marte, as he’s under team control through the 2021 season on a very team friendly contract. He’s been a consistent 4.0 fWAR player in previous years, and seems to be getting back on track lately after his suspension. The Pirates have him under control for his age 29-32 seasons, and with questions at their other two spots, Marte is the most reliable guy in the outfield for the short and long-term, and a guy the Pirates should build around.
Andrew McCutchen – I’ve written about the dilemma that exists with McCutchen. He has seen some lengthy slumps the last three seasons, and the injuries and inconsistent performances will only get worse as he gets older. When he’s playing well, like he has been since the end of May, then the result is Pirates fans want him extended. When he’s struggling, like he was the first two months of the season, fans want him traded. The problem is that he only has trade value when he’s performing well.
McCutchen has one more year of control, with no question that the Pirates will pick up his option year. The question is whether they will keep him around for the 2018 season. Trading him in the offseason might give them a chance to add a good long-term piece or two. If they keep him around, they’re banking on being strong contenders in 2018, and will get little value when he leaves.
There’s also the extension option, which I don’t think is wise. From an emotional standpoint, extending McCutchen makes sense. But when you consider that the Pirates will be spending a lot of money for a player on the decline, it doesn’t make business sense.
The decision with McCutchen was expected to be easy at this point, with the Pirates getting value for him and moving on to other options. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case, as shown with the next two players.
Gregory Polanco – Polanco had star upside coming up through the minors, but hasn’t reached that yet. He did put up a 2-3-2.5 fWAR in his previous two years, which is something you’d take from a starting outfielder. But this year has been full of injuries and inconsistent performances, with those two things seemingly tied together. Every time he starts to get hot, he goes down with another minor injury to derail his progress.
Polanco turns 26 in September, so he’s still relatively young for a guy who has had some success in the majors. He’s also shown flashes of being more than an average starter in the big leagues. But the injury problems and the inconsistent performances that go with them do raise the question of whether he can reach his upside, and get beyond being an average player at best. With McCutchen likely gone in the future, Polanco would be a good additional outfielder, but might not combine with Marte for a strong 1-2 punch like the Pirates have right now with Marte and McCutchen.
Austin Meadows – Similar to Polanco, there are questions coming up about Meadows, and a lot of them have to do with health. You may have been a bit early to give him the injury prone tag before the 2017 season, but that’s more than a fair label when you add his 2017 injuries to the mix. Meadows still has a lot of potential, but the injuries have prevented him from getting consistent time to develop in Indianapolis this year, meaning he won’t be ready this year, and won’t be ready at the start of the 2018 season.
By this point, McCutchen was supposed to be expendable, with Meadows coming up to take over. With Meadows not ready, the Pirates will have a tough decision to make with McCutchen this offseason. Making that decision tougher is that Polanco is also injury prone, which goes back to Marte being the only guy they can rely on at this point.
Meadows is only in his age 22 season, and turns 23 next May. So he could be up a month after his 23rd birthday, meaning he’s got plenty of time to develop. The issue here is more of timing and convenience, where he’s not ready when the Pirates need a replacement and an extra outfielder for their current question marks. As for his upside, you’d have to wonder whether that will be limited in the future due to the injuries, much like we’re currently seeing with Polanco.
Prospects – I could write an entire article about the future of the outfield position. The summary is that Meadows is still the top prospect. There are other prospects who could step up and become average starters at best, with Jordan Luplow leading that group in the upper minors. The Pirates have a lot of outfield talent growing in the lower levels, which I detailed here. That group might provide the next chance at impact talent. For now, the Pirates have their hopes on the health of Meadows and Polanco.
By this point, the Pirates were supposed to have a Dream Outfield of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco, all combining to be the best outfield trio in baseball. They were supposed to have Austin Meadows ready to step in, making McCutchen expendable.
Instead, they have injury questions with Polanco and Meadows, which raises the question of whether Polanco will remain just an average starter, and which has delayed Meadows, with similar questions possible in the future.
I’d expect Marte to return to his 4.0 WAR levels, and right now that looks to lead the Pirates outfield in the future. That could change if things finally click for Polanco, and if Meadows can reach his upside, with both of their future performances also having the injury factor.
It’s important to keep some perspective here. For years we dreamed about the Pirates having the best outfield in baseball. If Marte is a 4.0 WAR player, and Polanco and Meadows end up being in the average starter range of a 2.0 WAR, they still combine for an 8.0 WAR. Last year, that would have put them in the top ten, meaning they’d still have a good outfield.
The problem here is that the difference between a good outfield and the best outfield is typically about 5-6 WAR (keep in mind that bench players would contribute to the starting trio above, so they’d probably be higher than 8.0). The big appeal for having the top outfield is that the Pirates aren’t a big market team, and need all of the advantages they can get, especially when going up against the Cubs for the NL Central. So they still project to have a good outfield, but projecting them to fall short of the top outfield means that value needs to be made up somewhere else.
And of course, none of this really dives deep into the situation of what to do with McCutchen beyond 2017, which is an entire article by itself.