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The Pirates Outfield

The Pirates have perhaps the best outfielder in baseball not named Mike Trout, but it appears that they’ll have to play mix and match in right field until their top prospect is ready to answer the call. Their outfield produced about 13 real world wins last season, and that was with terrible play from Felix Pie and Travis Snider. Fantasy owners will be hoping for a repeat in 2014.

Uncontested
Andrew McCutchen
Starling Marte

In the mock draft I participated in last Tuesday, Howard Bender selected McCutchen third overall. He’s generally going fourth, behind the two you’d expect and Paul Goldschmidt, and he’s likely to stay in that third or fourth slot throughout draft season.

McCutchen is obviously a fantasy monster, delivering easy five category production when he’s on the field. Including the minors, he’s had over 650 plate appearances in five straight seasons. Four of those seasons have featured over 670 plate appearances. That combination of quantity and quality is rare and it’s a big reason why he’s ranked so high. I’m not as comfortable as some projecting future durability from past durability, but it is true that healthy players are less likely to succumb to injury. The corollary is that more play means more wear and tear, which in turn means a greater injury risk. Regardless, if you have the opportunity to draft McCutchen at his lofty price, you should do so without hesitation.

Marte is a far cry from McCutchen. Chris Cwik wrote about him earlier this offseason, noting that much of his success at the plate came from a .366 BABIP and 24 hit by pitches. Cwik doesn’t believe that the .366 BABIP is sustainable (nor do I) and 20 of his HBP’s came in two strike counts. Assuming regression in both areas, Marte is probably looking at a bigger step back in production than Steamer or Oliver expect. Double barreled regression also means fewer stolen base attempts, which is the one category where he truly excelled last season. Overall, only his power should be expected to remain consistent.

Based on NFBC results, Marte is being drafted ahead of players like Adrian Gonzalez, Ian Kinsler, and Ryan Zimmerman in the early fifth round. That means he’ll probably be pricey in your draft, yet there’s reason to believe that he might not return $10 of value. Personally, I would prefer the more reliable veteran options. It’s worth noting that Marte’s 40 steal upside could strongly affect his value, especially for an owner who missed out on early draft steals.

The Right Field Shuffle
Jose Tabata
Travis Snider
Jaff Decker
Andrew Lambo
Josh Harrison

Some of these names may not be with the Pirates when the season opens. It’s a crowded mix led by Tabata, who has shown a reverse platoon split in his short career. If he had better defense, he has enough bat to be an above average starter. Alas, his defensive skills are below average. He’s not the worst third outfielder in the league, but most teams hope for better production from their outfield corners. For fantasy owners, there is a chance that Tabata plays every day, which makes him a decent speculation pick at the end of a draft. He seems to have lost the wheels that allowed him to provide some fantasy value in 2010-2011. My advice is to fish elsewhere.

Snider has dominated Triple-A pitching since 2008, but he’s never quite made the leap to the majors. His best major league season featured a 104 wRC+ but his career wRC+ is just 88. Despite being around forever, Snider is entering his age 26 season and still has that whiff of breakout potential. His story isn’t entirely dissimilar to Chris Davis. You need not draft him, but it might be worth remembering that he exists.

Snider will probably battle Decker for the fourth outfielder role. Whoever wins should see more playing time than the typical fourth outfielder since Tabata will probably sit quite often. Decker is one of those prospects who has shown very high minor league walk rates without the fearsome power usually associated with that talent. He does have some power, so he probably won’t see his on base percentage disappear in the majors, but there is a risk that he’ll post very high strikeout rates. With data and scouting reports returning inconclusive results, the jury remains out on Decker. I’ll be following him closely this spring.

Lambo blasted 33 home runs across three levels last season, including one in the majors. He’ll probably strikeout too often to take advantage of his power. He might end up being a fifth outfielder who is worth the occasional stream start or daily fantasy plug. He might also be ticketed back to Triple-A. It probably depends on whether the club keeps one or both of Snider and Decker.

Harrison is a super utility man. He’s not a fantasy asset.

Noteworthy Prospects
Gregory Polanco
Josh Bell
Austin Meadows

Polanco may be manning right field for the Pirates as soon as mid-2014. He has just nine plate appearances at the Triple-A level, but his combination of plate approach, power, and speed could allow him to contribute something with the bat. His defense is a steep upgrade over Tabata, which may accelerate his promotion – especially if none of the above names are hitting well. For fantasy owners, there is the potential for five category production, but don’t count on it in 2014. Keeper league owners can consider drafting him, as long as it makes sense with your league’s rules. Owners in redraft leagues can watch him, but he’s not worth a stash. His best use this season will be for steals – assuming he gets the call at all.

Scouts love Polanco’s sweet lefty swing, and he’s one of those prospects that is considered to have a much higher ceiling than his stats have shown thus far. That’s not dissimilar to what we heard about McCutchen, so it’s possible that Polanco could put everything together and dominate at any time. Just remember, lots of these prospects also never reach their lofty ceiling.

Bell and Meadows are in the next wave of Pirates outfield prospects. They are names to watch for those in deep keeper or dynasty leagues.