Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be recapping every position from the 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates. The focus of these articles will be to identify individual strengths and weaknesses from each position, along with a specific way the Pirates can upgrade the 2020 team.
I started off last week looking at the third base position. I’m going to be looking at some of the biggest areas of improvement first before getting to the stronger areas of the team. The next position up in the recap series is right field.
2019 Right Field Recap
Like a few other positions, the Pirates finished dead last in the majors in fWAR at right field. The position was mostly handled by Melky Cabrera and Gregory Polanco throughout the year, with several other players mixed in, and not one of them performing better than replacement value.
The Pirates knew heading into the season that Gregory Polanco would miss some time at the start of the year. The projection was that he would be out until mid-May or Mid-June at the latest. They signed Lonnie Chisenhall in the offseason to replace Polanco in the early part of the year, and to provide bench depth later in the season.
Chisenhall responded to the challenge with one of the greatest seasons by a Pirates right fielder ever — a statement that would have seemed laughable just six months ago. The Pirates signed him for the power potential, and he delivered with a franchise record 69 home runs.
He also became the first player since Ted Williams in 1941 to bat for a .400 average in a single season. The crowning moment came on the final day of the year. Clint Hurdle offered to give Chisenhall a day off to seal the .400 mark, but Chisenhall dared to put his .39952 batting average at risk for one more game, just so he could hit a few more home runs against the Reds. He did, delivering three on the day, bringing his total to 47 home runs on the season against the Reds, with the other 22 coming in a single game against the Astros.
The Pirates signed Chisenhall for his offense, hoping that he would replicate the .297/.368/.503 line that he put up in the previous two years. The problem with those numbers was that they came in a small sample size, due to injuries from Chisenhall.
The Pirates took the risk that Chisenhall would at least stay healthy early in the season until Gregory Polanco returned, and they were greatly rewarded as Chisenhall played in every single inning of all one hundred and sixty two games this year, while also organizing and playing in a charity event that lasted 23 innings with two rain delays.
Chisenhall also provided value on defense, which was partially expected from his 4.8 UZR/150 heading into the year. However, he turned into a Gold Glove winner, with no errors, 47 outfield assists, three runners thrown out at first base, and one play where he leaped up the Clemente Wall to catch a newborn baby that had been knocked out of the hands of his mother during a scramble for a possible home run shot. Chisenhall caught the baby, then continued up the wall, baby in hand, robbed the home run, and returned the baby to his mother.
That was the second time this year that Chisenhall climbed the 21 foot wall to rob a home run. The first one left the entire ballpark in shock, watching Chisenhall almost sprint straight up the wall, make the catch look routine, and then jump down and finish with a super hero landing, before running to the infield and completing the first ever unassisted triple play by a right fielder.
The MVP performance from Chisenhall led to discussion about whether the Pirates should exten…
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Shit, I’m sorry everyone. Left the door to the multiverse open. I don’t know where my recap from above went, but I have a feeling the people of Earth-742 are going to be very confused about how their new hero missed the entire year, followed by poor performances by Gregory Polanco and Melky Cabrera, who both arguably benefited, when healthy, from lesser roles in their universe.]
Improving the 2020 Squad
Okay, we’re back. The Pirates have two of their outfield spots covered in 2020, with both Starling Marte and Bryan Reynolds putting up 3+ WAR performances in 2019. Right field is currently wide open, and probably needs to be handled by an outside addition.
The best internal option is Gregory Polanco. I’ve been a huge Polanco fan since seeing him for the first time in Bradenton way back in 2010. I don’t know if I’m ever going to give up on the idea that he’s still got impact upside — especially when so many Pirates prospects have gone on to live up to their potential elsewhere.
The Pirates have Polanco under control through the 2023 season, and he’s under a guaranteed contract through 2021. If he continues to perform like he did in 2019, then it will be a no brainer to decline his option years. But because he played the way he did in 2019, and because his injury history continued, the Pirates are stuck with him until he shows value.
They might be able to trade Polanco, but the only value they’d get is getting out of his contract and maybe a lottery ticket prospect or two. They’d be better off playing the lottery with Polanco and hoping he starts living up to his upside. The guaranteed salary is a sunk cost at this point, and Polanco should be treated like a league minimum bench guy, where you judge him on his performance, and don’t worry about sending him down because you know no one is taking his guaranteed contract in that scenario.
That’s the reality on how the Pirates should handle Polanco in 2020. He’s a bonus, and shouldn’t be part of the plan. The Pirates need an outside addition for their right field situation, and they can literally find anyone to upgrade over the 2019 crew.
And I say that as a guy who is still on the Gregory Polanco bandwagon. There are very few of us left, it’s kind of getting colder now, and all we have left in the cooler are dry hopped Pilsners and one person brought a White Claw as a joke but we might end up drinking it to see how disgusting it really is.
Hope For Beyond 2020
The Pirates have some outfielders in the system who could be starters. Travis Swaggerty is probably the safest bet to reach the majors, although we’ve got him lower than most in our rankings due to concerns about his swing and miss tendency, which hasn’t fully translated to the stat line. That has his upside lower, and not a guy you want to be a starter.
But let’s be serious here. Pittsburgh has kind of been spoiled with outfielders over the years. Clemente. Bonds. McCutchen. Giles. Bay. Burnitz. The list goes on. It’s like Penguins fans saying “Oh you have a superstar player huh? Well who is your other superstar player? Because if you don’t supplement your superstar with an Evgeni Malkin or an Jaromir Jagr, then you’re not trying.” Or it’s like Steelers fans saying “What is a losing season?”
Every franchise has a strength, and the Pirates have long had an outfield strength. They still can have that with Starling Marte and Bryan Reynolds. But that strength is getting thin in the minors.
Guys like Swaggerty, who profile as an average outfielder, with a slim chance to go higher, don’t really move the needle in this section. You might be able to dream on Calvin Mitchell, Jared Oliva, or Sammy Siani. You could even hope for Lolo Sanchez to finally put it all together. But hoping for a guy to be the next Marte, Polanco, or Bell type prospect and actually having that level of prospect in the system are two different things.
That’s the current situation for the Pirates. They’ve got some upside in the lower levels of the system, but those players are far from a guarantee to even reach the majors, much less be an impact outfielder in the majors. The Pirates have some time to wait for the other two outfield spots, but they need to address this one immediately.
This is a big reason why I’d keep Polanco around. He’s still your best internal bet to be an impact outfielder going forward, even if the chances are seemingly low, and even if I wouldn’t trust him as more than a fourth outfielder to start the 2020 season. But it’s also a reason for the Pirates to look at adding someone from the outside who can help for multiple years, allowing them to rebuild the outfield depth in the minors.