Williams: The Pirates Have Some Outfield Depth Behind McCutchen, Marte, and Polanco

The Pirates have some questions in their outfield in 2018.

Andrew McCutchen has struggled the last few years, and while he can still be a 4.0 WAR player, he’s not the same guy who once led this lineup.

Gregory Polanco still has the upside of a star player, but we’ve gotten to the point where he may never realize that, and might be an average-to-above average player at best. He also has a history of injuries, which makes it less likely that he could put up even that type of production.

Starling Marte is coming off a down year, although as I wrote today, I’m less worried about him than the other two. I think we could see the old Marte return next year.

Overall, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think this outfield could combine for 10-11 WAR in 2018. McCutchen and Marte are capable of 4 WAR production, and Polanco is capable of 2-3 WAR production without assuming any further improvements from any of them.

That would have been good enough this past year to rank 9th in the majors for the most productive outfield groups, and maybe a bit higher if you factor in a win or two off the bench. But as we’ve seen, you can’t count on everything going right with this group. So what happens if things go wrong? Who do the Pirates have to step up?

The biggest option would be Austin Meadows, although he comes with his own set of challenges and uncertainty. Meadows has yet to make the jump to the majors, and hasn’t looked ready yet, needing more time in Triple-A. The reason for his delay has been his lengthy injury history, which saw several additions to the list this year. Meadows will eventually get adjusted to Triple-A, and then he will make the majors. He projects as a guy who should be able to eventually make the transition to becoming an MLB starter. The one lasting concern would be his injuries, putting him in a similar category as Polanco.

As for the 2018 season, it’s hard to count on Meadows as depth, since that would require him to make the adjustments to Triple-A, make the successful leap to the majors, and stay healthy. When he does the first two things, and the third thing is all we have to worry about, then he could be considered a depth option.

The Pirates do have two options on the current team who could step up if the club needed an outfielder. Adam Frazier is already serving that role, and hasn’t been a bad guy to have off the bench. He had a 1.1 fWAR this year, fueled by a .743 OPS and surprisingly good defense in the outfield, due mostly to his range. I don’t see Frazier as a good starting option if the Pirates were to lose one of the above guys for the year (or if they were to trade McCutchen). I do see him as a good fourth outfield option off the bench, capable of stepping in for a normal injury or the usual off days.

I don’t know if I’m counting on Jordan Luplow yet to be a major league starter after just 87 plate appearances. Right now if I’m giving him an upside, it would be as an average starter, and maybe better if his power turns out to be legit in the majors. He had a .755 OPS in the month of September, along with a .209 ISO. He’s not a strong defender, but I think he could handle the position, with his offense making up for that.

Right now I see Luplow as equal to Frazier, with enough offense to be good off the bench, and good enough defensively to handle the position over an extended period of time. I do see more offensive upside with Luplow, and if that shows up sooner than later, the Pirates could have a nice injury replacement, while still having Frazier as the fourth outfielder on the bench. I’d expect both of them to make the Opening Day roster next year.

In the event that the Pirates trade McCutchen and go for a quick rebuild, I think having Luplow as a starter makes the most sense. That will be about the only shot he would get at being a regular starter in Pittsburgh, outside of a lengthy injury. It would give him a chance to show what he can do before Meadows arrives, and then give the Pirates some options with their future outfield.

Beyond Meadows, Frazier, and Luplow, the Pirates have some other options. Josh Harrison and Sean Rodriguez could both play the outfield, but I’d be surprised if they’re both on the team, and if you only have one left, it would take away from the infield to put them in the outfield. Jose Osuna and Chris Bostick are options, but I see their upsides as bench players only, behind Frazier and Luplow on the depth chart.

The Pirates have question marks in their starting outfield, with the upside of a 10-11 WAR group. If those outfielders deal with injuries or poor performances, then they have some options on the bench and in the minors. Unfortunately, they also come with questions. Meadows isn’t ready, and then has the question of health. Frazier looks solid off the bench, but has the question of whether he can be a starter. Luplow seems more likely to be a starter, but the question is whether he can make that jump, and whether he can make it sooner than later.

That’s not exactly the most favorable position for the Pirates to be in for this group. On the flip side, it could be worse, as they could be without a group that has this upside to begin with, or without three players who at the very least have a shot at being strong bench options, and maybe more.

  • Tim, Luplow has outperformed Meadows. In my opinion he is now a better prospect.

    • Luplow’s probably a better bet to be the better hitter, at this point.

      But Meadows still having a chance to play a decent CF vs Luplow’s apparent ability to play an awful LF/RF probably still makes Meadows the better overall prospect…

    • This is one issue I’ve seen with prospect analysis over the years. The idea that everyone is on the same path and timeline.

      Luplow has outperformed Meadows. That doesn’t mean he’s a better prospect. It means he has performed better to this point.

      Prospect status evaluates future potential. Meadows still wins there.

      • Certainly tools and intangibles matter, but results matter, too, as does ability to stay healthy.

        Now pardon me while I go hunt for my Paul Goldschmidt rookie card…

  • Way too many questions and ifs surrounding the 2018 Pirates.

  • Here are the minor league stats of three recent OF prospects

    Player A
    minors during ages 20-23
    1619 PA, .275/.369/.465, HR 3.2%, BB 11.8%, K 16.7%
    AAA, age 23: .914 OPS in 182 PA

    player B
    minors during ages 17-22
    2000 PA, .285/.356/.432, HR 2.1%, BB 9.5%, K 15.6%
    AAA, age 22: .880 OPS in 314 PA

    player C
    minors ages 18-22
    1685 PA, .292/.359/.459, HR 2.0%, BB 9.0%, K 16.9%
    AAA, age 22: .697 OPS in 457 PA

    Two are/were considered stars of the future and the other a fringey prospect. Not saying that’s wrong, because there are other factors besides a few rate stats, but I do think it’s interesting how similar their performances were in the minors.

    I think this group should be able to pretty easily ID these guys, so I’ll hold that back for now.

  • I like both Luplow and Frazier but this team doesn’t really have another true outfielder (other then Meadows) in the organization above rookie ball. Sure these two guys can do the job while Meadows learns to hit in AAA but what does this say about the teams drafting and international signings? Why the hell did they draft Newman a poor mans Mercer and Craig who could never play 3b where he was needed and now with Bell becomes surplus. Repeated mistakes and going cheap in the past has destroyed this team.

    • Adam Frazier’s bat plus shortstop-capable defense gives you a 2-WAR *floor*. That’s what they were getting with Newman, and at pick 19 you take that every day. FWIW, as bad as Newman was at the plate this year, Frazier was *worse* as a 23 yo in high-A. Worry if Newman does this two years in a row.

  • I’m ok with Luplow and Frazier as back-ups in OF next year. I don’t see a screaming need to go out and get a vet. Bucs have plenty of utility players who can man the IF if Frazier is pulling frequent hamstring relief duty in the OF. Bostick also played some outfield in AAA last year — another option. I don’t expect to see Meadows in the bigs before September 2018, assuming he stays healthy and regardless of whether Cutch remains with the team past the trading deadline.

  • Boy does this highlight the importance of Austin Meadows to the future of this organization. In the post-Cutch world, there doesn’t appear to be an outfielder in the org between Meadows and Lolo capable of handling CF for an extended period with enough bat to be above replacement level. While it won’t likely matter much in a 2018 mini-rebuild scenario, an injury to Marte would be disastrous in a contending year.

    Huntington has had the luxury of never really having to find a *true* 4th OF. A guy who can actually cover all OF positions, including CF. He’s been able to be successful with the Travis Sniders and Matt Joyces of the world because defense matters far less when you have two center fielders already on the roster. Without Cutch, Austin Meadows is needed to make a guy like Frazier (LF only) or Luplow (corners) viable as the 4th OF without also rostering a CF safety valve like they’ve previously done at SS.

    • I know i’m probably getting annoying with all the Adam Frazier talk these days, but i do wonder if he could give some decent results in CF if they deal Cutch and Marte gets hurt. As you’ve said, he has fine range. and it’s not like Cutch ever had a good arm.

      maybe he just hasnt played there because… as we’re aware… Marte and Cutch have always been around.

      Obviously there’s no way *we* could know if he’d be good or bad at it, but maybe the Pirates have something like that up their sleeve.

    • Management has basically been signaling that our outfield depth is thin in the organization by signing jabronie outfield FAs every year for the last several years to AAA. The lack of quality or quantity in the minors should be no surprise.

    • I miss the days where we could fool ourselves into thinking this system had a lot of outfield depth. Between dumb trades and guys not developing as expected it sure is thin today.

    • Can’t help but feel like I’ve been punched in the gut again over that damn deal for Rodgers. I know at the time the Bucs were scrambling for a first baseman, but Broxton, flaws and all, is a nice 4th outfielder to have on the bench.

  • justinblain1996
    October 11, 2017 10:47 pm

    I know he is way down on the depth chart now with his injury history, but have we given up hope that Barrett Barnes turns in to something even if it is only as a bench player

    • Is he in AAA yet?

    • He turned 26 during the season. He made it to AAA for the first time and logged 93 ABs with very non-descript results. He is rule 5 eligible. He will become a minor league free agent after 2018. So I’d say he gets one more year — a full year at AAA — to see if he can stay healthy and perhaps turn in to a 4th OF. But no, I don’t expect that to happen.

  • As much as Polanco is/was tantalizing, he doesn’t seem like the same kind of player he was when I saw him in AAA s few years ago. He seems much slower and can’t seem to recognize breaking pitches. Has this always been an issue with him? I don’t remember reading anything about it. He also seemed to have at least average if not above average pitch recognition before this year.

    Maybe all the issues are a product of his injuries. I hope so and I hope he gets healthy, because I really thought he was going to be legit great.

    • In the Minors he went with the pitch. Now his hips open up and he try’s to crank everything. My opinion is move on without him.

      • Polanco needs to go to the Barry Bonds school of hitting and absolutely own the inner half of the strike zone. If he can get his hands out in front and turn on every high, inside fastball then he can watch pitchers play around the outer edge and either slap some singles the other way and stretch some into doubles or get ahead in the count and force pitchers to come in on him. Much easier said than done and unfortunately his swing is pretty long which makes it harder for him to square up balls on the inner half.

  • Tim,
    The big question is going to be what they do with McCutchen. Do you think he will be in the opening line up in 2018 with us or another team?

    • Give him the $14 million, play him, trade him or say goodbye at the end of ’18. Don’t pay him for what he did in the past.

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