The Pirates have a corner outfielder coming that should combine plus defense with power and speed. 22-year-old Gregory Polanco even played in Double-A last year, so he’s close. But does the team want to slot him in from the get-go? Doesn’t seem like it. Because Pittsburgh added Jaff Decker to the fold over the weekend. Now there’s a stable of solutions in right field, and some short-term opportunity for those guys to step forward. And if any of them do so successfully, there’s even a chance they continue to play when Polanco is up… it’s not like Gaby Sanchez is going to keep them on the bench.
Assuming that Polanco doesn’t make the team, there are three or four open spots up in the air. Between the corner outfield and first base, the team can probably spend four spots, with two of the players getting more playing time than the rest. Considering handedness, that gives lefties Jaff Decker, Andrew Lambo and Travis Snider the edge. After all, two-thirds of the league is right-handed. Andrew Lambo is the only one of the group that has any experience playing first base, so he already has two check marks in his favor.
That sets us up for a position battle between Decker and Snider in the outfield. They’re an interesting duo to put up against each other. Check out some relevant minor league rates for the two lefty outfielders:
|MiLB BB%||MiLB K%||MiLB ISO|
This team is not afraid of strikeouts from their batters. At least not the ones they pick up cheaply. Decker is two years younger, although that means he has options left and could end up in the minor leagues. Snider is more of a known commodity, however, and almost 1400 plate appearances with a career .241/.303/.398 line hasn’t impressed anyone. It would only take a good spring — defined probably by contact rate and defense — for Decker to take over.
And, in the past, Decker has shown the ability to pair good defense with speed and power. He just hasn’t ever done all of those things at one time. When he cut his strikeout rate from Double-A (23.7%) to Triple-A (22.7%), he also lost power (.181 isolated slugging to .157). He’s taken fewer attempts on the basepaths as he’s gotten older, and been less successful. His power disappears against lefties. It’s easy to see the pessimistic side of this. But he still has the capacity to show power and patience and decent D without hurting on the basebaths, even if you have to hide him against lefties. Another year away from plantar fasciitis problems may help, too.
Andrew Lambo is yet another guy with strikeout problems, but he can play first base and his power is trending in the right direction. Mike Podhorzer covered that change in more detail, but even if the power translates to the bigs, he’ll have to strike out less than 33% of the time to make the big league squad.
Another option at first base is Jerry Sands. The 26-year-old right-hander struck out a bit more against righties and had a better line drive rate against lefties in the high minors, but otherwise didn’t show much of a split. He’s got the worst Triple-A strikeout rate of all the options, however, and the fact that Pittsburgh didn’t play him in the big leagues last year can’t be considered a good sign for his future value.
The safest players of the group are the right-handers. As it stands now, Gaby Sanchez and Jose Tabata probably get most of the starts against lefties. Sanchez has a nice .300/.399/.496 line against left-handers so far in his major league career, and Tabata’s .258/.332/.403 against southpaws is also better than his overall numbers. The problem, of course, is that it’s hard to roster a guy for 200-300 plate appearances, no matter how nice they may be.
It doesn’t look like there are two players that are going to jump to the front of the line and claim these two jobs by themselves. In real life, that’s probably not such a big deal. Pirate first baseman and right fielders, as groups, were ninth and twelfth by wRC+, and the Pirates still scored the ninth-most runs in the National League last year. And it was a decent year.
But those numbers could be improved, and if Gregory Polanco isn’t ready, it’s the Jaff Decker, Travis Snider, Andrew Lambo, Gaby Sanchez, Jerry Sands and Jose Tabata Solution for the Pirates this year. With Tabata as the plain vanilla backup option, and free agency not over yet, the current leaders (not yet) in the clubhouse have to be Decker and Lambo, all things considered.