Williams: The Dream Outfield Hasn’t Come True For the Pirates

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.

Summary

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.

Columns

  • You simply can’t trade Cutch this offseason without replacing him with an actual starter. And you need to have a 4th OF now because of Polanco’s history. Then in June we can deal with Meadows’ call up if it happens.

    So for 2018, i would go start with:
    – the current starters: Cervelli, Bell, Harrison, Freese, Mercer, Marte, Cutch, and Polanco
    – the following bench: Diaz, Frazier, S-Rod, Osuna

    – I would add a LH-hitting OF and try to replace Freese at 3B

  • How many games did the dream outfield play together this season? I am in the camp of holding onto McCutchen and see if the front office could swing a deal with one of the two others. McCutchen has been very durable. Polanco has not come close to his potential. I don’t know if baserunning is factored into WAR, but they both make there share of baserunning mistakes like getting thrown out at third on ground balls hit in front of them. There are times when Marte doesn’t hustle. I know Marte makes plays that very few others can, but he also kills the team with mental mistakes.

    I also think the Pirates would get more of a return for Marte or Polanco due to their contract values.

  • “Marte is the most reliable… a guy they should build around.”

    That’s where you lost me.

    • Marte is the most reliable. That’s damning him with faint praise. As a whole, the outfield has been a big disappointment this year.

  • “When he’s playing well, like he has been since the end of May”

    Have you checked out his August stats? By almost every measure (OPS, wOBA, wRC+, hard contact %, …) it’s been worse than either April or May.

  • Didn’t you have the “Dream Outfield” (TM) at one point?

  • Unless Marte finds his HR swing and Polanco as well, they simply are no where near consistent enough to win with. Pirates even with Cutch playing OK are not division contenders. 14.5 million is better used elsewhere. Trade for what you can and hope Kang with Bell can provide the power to help.I am still in the Meadows camp. He does so many things well that if healthy, can provide the bat and D to improve the OF.

  • Two reasons to extend Cutch 1) it’s not my money 2) he is a great guy

  • Re: Marte. How much of that 4.0 WAR was due to juice? Re: Cutch. “Open market he’s getting upwards of $25 million.” Are you kidding me? The Pirates have too many holes to fill. I hate to say it, but they’re about where they are likely to be for the next few years, a slightly under .500 club.

    • A good amount of Marte’s WAR comes from his defense, so I wouldn’t say the juice factors into his value much at all.

  • Pay McCutchen his option next year, trade him if you’re not contending, keep him if you are. Say so long in 2019, thanks for everything.

    • That’s what will probably happen. I can’t see the Pirates getting much value during the offseason and there’s no way they will extend him.

  • You could almost write the same article and just substitute the Mets starting rotation. Things don’t always turn out like you think they will.

  • Also McCutchen has expressed he would like an extension. I bet he could do pretty well on the open market. He would have to give the Pirates a pretty good deal for them to keep him.

    • michael schalke
      August 29, 2017 4:43 pm

      I”d put his market value at the 15-18 million per season range. Would be foolish to go higher.

      • WillyMoGarcia33
        August 29, 2017 5:07 pm

        It’d be a steal if they could tie up Cutch for $15-$18 million a season. Open market, he’s potentially getting upwards of $25 million a season.

        • michael schalke
          August 29, 2017 8:28 pm

          Are you on drugs?

          • WillyMoGarcia33
            August 29, 2017 11:51 pm

            Do you pay attention to the market, or just make emotionally biased opinions based off nothing?

            • michael schalke
              August 30, 2017 10:12 am

              OK, sorry for being an ass but Cutch has been in decline for 3 years and I just don’t think anyone is going to pay him top dollar at this point in his career.

              • WillyMoGarcia33
                August 30, 2017 12:21 pm

                I understand that, but that is more so from a Pirates fan perspective that expects an MVP/All-Star performance every year. But you also have to see that even just last year, Jose Bautista coming off a 1.4 fWAR (although qualifying offer attached to him as well), got $18.5 million at age 36. Even in Cutch’s downturn, going based off this season, a top 20 OF in terms of WAR or wRC+ doesn’t just fall from the sky. I say upwards of $25m, but I think $20m+ with incentives is very realistic if Cutch were to hit the market now.

                • michael schalke
                  August 30, 2017 12:37 pm

                  You’re probably right but he’s had eight weeks or so of really good hitting this year. April-May and August have been dreadful!

        • You’re not paying attention to his August. Since his 3 HR game on July 30 he’s had 4 extra base hits. Four in 26 games, or about one per week.

          • WillyMoGarcia33
            August 29, 2017 11:54 pm

            Do you see he has a 3.3 fWAR for the season? Going off of $8m-$9m per 1 WAR, and contracts like Heyward and Upton, players that don’t have Cutch’s background even given last year, $20m to upwards of $25m from a higher payroll team is more than reasonable. Especially depending on availability of OF’s on the market.

            • But we’re talking about paying for what we can expect him to do in the future, not paying him for what he’s done in the past.

              It’s an interesting case–his 3.1 fWAR (I guess it dropped by .2 based on last night) or 1.9 bWAR comes from 3 months of being way below average and 2 months of being about the best player in the league. There’s so much variability that I don’t see a team committing the kind of figures you’re giving unless it’s on a one-year deal.

              • WillyMoGarcia33
                August 30, 2017 11:55 pm

                But when has paying purely for expected future production ever been the case? Continuing on Jose Bautista, as I mentioned in a post to the other commenter, if we’re going by bWAR, Bautista had 1.0 bWAR (compared to 1.4 fWAR), and still got $18.5m with 2 (mutual) options. I still think given a relatively resurgent season from Cutch this year, compared to last year, you’re looking at minimum $20m/yr. Maybe not a long contract, but he also has name value. A lot would also depend on the OF market as well, but I still think he gets $20m-$25m (with incentives). Matt Kemp makes over $20m, and he’s been brutal.

  • If the Pirates trade McCutchen would you still consider them contenders for the 2018 season. It seems even if they keep him they have a lot of players adapting to the MLB next year. If they trade him, I hope it’s for Major league ready talent.

    • michael schalke
      August 29, 2017 4:44 pm

      I doubt they would get much in return.

      • They were close to getting a teams #1 prospect after a down year. I bet a large market team would give a lot for McCutchen.

        • Yes like this management can judge talent! Come on they have/had a cavalcade of talent pass through (Pedro, Hansen, Sanchez….). Sign him and watch him age.

          • I’d rather watch Cutch age for a few more years than buy the lottery ticket with prospects who will take years to potentially pan out.

          • Yeah, terrible judges…Bell, Mercer, Kang, Taillon, Melancon, Rivero, Glasnow, Keller, Tucker…

            Every team has hits, every team has misses. Even with the W-L the last 2 years things have been a lot better with this FO, and there’s still plenty to build with. And btw, there are plenty of top 3 picks who produced far less than Pedro, & from every single organization.

          • Yeah the management team that built a three year in a row playoff team clearly has a worse eye for talent than the super smart casual, complaining fan.

    • Are they contenders even if they keep Cutch? Bucs could easily be picked to finish 4th in the division next year.

      • Or 5th! Look at their record against the Reds! Team needs a major infusion of talent and it ain’t happening!

    • With or without McCutchen the Pirates would need to upgrade 2-3 position players, add substantially to the bullpen and possibly add a starting pitcher to be considered contenders. They are that far away.

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