The Pittsburgh Pirates enter 2013 with higher expectations than what we’re probably used to. They are, after all, the same Pirates that haven’t had a winning record since before there was anything called the National League Central division (1992) and their 79 wins in 2012 matched their best season in fifteen years. So the bar might not be set terribly high. But after starting the season 47-38, there is residual optimism left over, and much of it is wrapped up in some of the great young talent they will feature in 2013. And the Pirate outfield happens to be one of the bright spots.
Since this is a depth chart discussion, we can get center field out of the way pretty quickly. Andrew McCutchen is unquestionably the best player on the team after posting a .327/.400/.553 line with 31 home runs and 20 steals, netting him a third place finish in the Most Valuable Player voting. Assuming good health, McCutchen isn’t going anywhere, obviously. The team has Felix Pie in camp as a non-roster invitee, and he presumably would be the backup to McCutchen, but even if he makes the team, he should get comfortable with the surroundings in the dugout.
Left field is likely to be manned by Starling Marte. Probably very likely. The only hesitation is that Marte is still 24 with fewer than 200 Major League plate appearances while they have $15 million dollars invested in Jose Tabata. Marte is a superior defender to Tabata, and he’s coming off an impressive Dominican Winter League performance, but he’ll still need to hold off Tabata in the Spring. If he secures the job outright, he could be a terrific source of cheap steals and he has double digit home run pop in his bat to boot. Because of his inexperience, projecting him is pretty rough, and that’s reflected in the variations between the systems currently available. ZiPS has him at .264/.310/.428 while Bill James is doing his optimistic thing at .297/.336/.479.
And then there’s right field, which is kind of a mess. In the mix you have Garrett Jones, Travis Snider, Alex Presley, Jerry Sands, and Jose Tabata. Garrett Jones could very easily move to first base which lessens the log jam, but then there’s the free agent signing of Gaby Sanchez who will probably play first base when there’s a left handed pitcher on the hill. If right field turns into a straight platoon situation then you have Tabata and Sands as your right handed options and you have Presley, Jones and Snider as your left handed options. Jones likely plays first base in that scenario, with Snider in right field — and that’s probably what you’ll against right handed pitching, which is a lot of the time.
Jones didn’t platoon much last season, where he got 515 plate appearances in. And he had a productive year, hitting 27 home runs, driving in 89, while hitting .274. In his career, he’s a .198/.237/.353 hitter versus left handed pitchers, however — so the platoon makes sense. He should still get 450 plate appearances, and that ought to be good for 20 home runs and a good number of RBI, but he’s probably going to be best used in daily transaction leagues where you can anticipate the occasional respite.
Snider is no lock to become the left handed platoon partner in right as he’s really yet to produce consistently at the Major League level. He has oodles of talent and he has hit right handed pitchers fairly well in the past, but given the competition in right field, it’s hard to recommend him on draft day. If he won the job outright somehow, he would be an intriguing target with his power potential. It seems like they’ll give him every opportunity to be their right fielder, but certainly don’t draft him counting on it.
This leaves Tabata and Sands fighting for scraps versus left handed pitchers. Sands has demonstrated big power in the minor leagues but given the current construction of the roster, playing time is probably not going to be there. He could be the guy they go to versus lefties, but it seems more likely they go to Tabata and let Sands season for one more year in the minors. It could just come down to a Spring battle between the two.
Tabata is kind of an enigma. He appeared to be the future in left field until all sorts of injuries and ineffectiveness produced a forgettable 2011. He was again the starter in 2012 not to mention their leadoff hitter. At the end of May, he was hitting just .216/.268/.327 and was dropped down to 6th and 7th in the order. By the end of June, they cut the cord and sent him back to AAA. When he returned in late August, he played sparingly, but did manage to hit better — posting a .284/.376/.370 line but he hit zero home runs, stole no bases and managed just seven doubles over 94 plate appearances. If he was a regular, he would be a fringey outfielder on your fantasy squad — and I kind of like the Oliver projection for him the most: .271/.336/.384 with 8 HR and 19 SB over 552 plate appearances. Again, they have him signed through 2016 with club options through 2019 so it’s clear they liked him quite a bit at one point. But the investment isn’t so great that they won’t let him earn it in the minors.
And just for due diligence, they invited Brad Hawpe to camp, who would be interesting if he were 27 and playing in Colorado again.
In the end, I’d say center is obviously sealed, left field is probably sewn up, and right field is the one to watch.
Left: Starling Marte, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley
Center: Andrew McCutchen, Felix Pie?
Right: Travis Snider, Garrett Jones, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley, Jerry Sands