Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pirates by Position: Outfield

Ya know, from all the yada you hear about the Buc outfield and the guys in the pipeline, this position may not be nearly as loaded as touted, at least not yet.

The classic outfield has a center fielder that can go get it and a couple of hammerin' corners. In 1960, that crew was Bob Skinner, Bill Virdon, and Roberto Clemente. In 1971, it was Willie Stargell, young Al Oliver, and the Great One. In 1979, it was Bill Robinson/Mike Easler, Omar Moreno, and Dave Parker. In 1990, the pasture patrol was Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke, and Bobby Bonilla.

Rest assured that except for Andrew McCutchen, who seems like an easy fit into any of those outfields if his 2009 start is any indicator, next season's Bucs will not be mistaken for any of those championship trios under any configuration.

Of course, if you're gonna begin from scratch, which is what Pittsburgh opted to do when they unloaded Jay Bay, Xavier Nady, Nate McLouth and Nyjer Morgan within a year's time, McCutchen isn't a bad place to start the process.

In 108 games, the 22 year-old hit .286/.365/.471 with 12 HR, 54 RBI, 74 runs, and 54 walks drawn to 83 Ks. And he was McClutch; he swatted the ball for a .324 average and a 1.075 OPS with runners in scoring position.

Some noise has been made about dropping him into the three hole to take advantage of his production at the plate. We think he's just fine as a disruptive force at the top of the order, although the team's lack of options may eventually find him in the middle of the line up.

As a fielder, he covers acres of ground, and his reads and routes became cleaner as the season went on, though still not there yet. McCutchen's biggest flaw is his arm; it's good enough, but scattershot. Still, not much to carp on about his leather.

Ah, but who to surround him with? Lasting Milledge, 24, hit .291/4/20 in 220 Pirate at-bats, and laid to rest his bad-boy reputation. But he needs a lot of work to cement a spot in left field. Milledge's Pirate RISP was just .231, although it's .260 for his career, even with 2009 added in to the total.

His 15-20 HR potential didn't translate in the Steel City. Milledge is a free swinger, and though his strikeout rate isn't worrisome, his plate discipline is. Better selection, better results.

His fielding was a pleasant surprise. It improved steadily, though like McCutchen, his reads, routes, and arm all need work. But he's fast enough, seems willing to plug away at it, and his Pirate UZR of 5.4 is certainly acceptable for a work in progress.

Still, to earn an everyday spot in left, his bat will have to produce some runs at a much stronger rate than it did in 2009. And he could do it. His potential is well documented, and he sports lots of upside yet. It's amazing how underdeveloped and raw his skills were for a guy that was spending his fourth season in the show.

Garrett Jones, for the time being, is the right fielder. It's not a bad spot for him; he's got enough speed and arm to cover his little Clemente Corner; his -2.6 UZR more than meets reasonable expectations of a first baseman playing in the outfield.

They surely can use his bat; his .293/.372/.567 line came out of the blue. He added 21 long balls, 44 RBI, and even 10 stolen bases to the Pirate attack.

We're not overly concerned with his post-July drop off, when he fell from Herculean numbers to merely strong. Jones still hit at a 30 homer level for August and September, and never had a worse monthly average than .274 or drilled fewer than five bombs.

But like Milledge, he needs a much better approach with runners on. Almost half of his RBIs were rung up by him crossing the plate after a yard ball; his .152 RISP average is terrible for a middle-of-the-order guy; heck, it's bad for a pitcher.

Jones, 28, leaves us with more questions than answers at this point. The two biggest: Can he not only repeat his success, but improve on it from a production standpoint? And where will he ultimately end up when Pedro Alvarez comes to town?

That leaves the MLB roster with one other OFer, the streaky Brandon Moss, 26. For a guy that puts on spectacular batting practice power displays, his .236/.304/.364 line with 7 bombs and 41 RBI was one of the season's major disappointments.

He has fourth outfielder written all over him unless he makes a 180 turn at the plate. Still, it wouldn't surprise us to see him and Steve Pearce platoon as they did last season, at least until the expected mid-season shake up.

For all the talent the Pirates were said to be amassing, the only outfielder on the near horizon is Jose Tabata, 21. He combined to hit .293/5/35 at Altoona and Indy, has some speed, and is a good glove guy. Like Milledge, he was another alleged head case that's been a model citizen for the Pirates, even if his wife has not.

Widely considered to be a shoo-in for a summer call to the show, we're not so sure. We think it depends on how well the MLB outfielders are doing, and how well JT does in his first full season at Indy. He won't be 22 until August, so it only makes sense to bring him up like McCutchen, when there's an everyday window open for him.

But he'll be knocking on the door shortly, whether in 2010 or 2011. The only question regarding Tabata is if he'll ever mature into a power hitter.

After Tabata, the future is, well, in the future. Gorkys Hernandez, 22, is a pop-gun hitter and pure speed guy who covers lots of grass, but only steals bases at a 50% rate.

He hit .262/3/31 in 374 at-bats for Altoona, and it's difficult to project a place for him in the Pirate outfield with McC ensconced in center. Our take is that he's the most likely prospect to be packaged in a Huntington deal, although his supporters see another Nyjer Morgan in the making.

Beyond Hernandez, the Pirate outfield pretty much resided at the A level in 2009. Starling Marte, 21, boosted his name on the prospect board after being named the Dominican Summer League MVP in 2008, batting .296 with nine home runs in 65 games.

Marte followed by hitting .312/3/34 at West Virginia. He's got a ton of speed and some power, but needs polishing, especially regarding plate discipline and in the field, where he depends more on natural ability than technique. The Bucs are moving him along on a fast track, so expect him at Lynchburg next season.

Robbie Grossman, 20, a sixth-round high school pick of 2008, hit .266/5/42 for West Virginia this year while striking out 164 times. The scouts were all over the board regarding him playing in center, and he likely projects as a corner outfielder for the Bucs. He, like Marte, was aggressively promoted, and could end up in Lynchburg, although he has to be considered very much a work in progress.

Rogelio Noris, 20, played solidly in the Mexican League and spent 2009 in the GCL where he flashed some power, hitting .250/6/24, although he struck out too often and walked not enough. He's purely a corner outfielder, and will probably end up in West Virginia this year.

Quincy Latimore, 20, was at West Virginia last season, and hit .251/11/70. He's raw, but has some power and OK speed. He's a liability in the outfield, although he does make up for minimal range with a strong arm. Latimore, like the others, has poor plate discipline, but his ability to launch a baseball intrigues the Pirates, who will likely ship him to Lynchburg with the rest of the West Virginia outfield.

The outfield is not a terribly deep position for the Pirates. There's little power on the 40-man roster, especially if Jones moves to first base full-time, and no help above the A level of the minors.

And for all the speed guys the Pirates picked up, there's no one ready to step in if Andrew McCutchen misses any major chunk of time; right now, Milledge would be his back-up.

If the Pirates do dive into the free-agent market, they have plenty enough holes in the outfield with little immediate muscle on the way to bring in a hired gun. That's why Ricky Ankiel is such a popular hot-stove item; he's a guy with a little pop that can play center, killing two birds with one stroke of the pen.

CONTRACTUAL ISSUES: Milledge doesn't have any options left, and becomes arbitration eligible in 2011. Moss and Jones are out of options. McCutchen doesn't reach arbitration status until 2013. Hernandez has to added to the 40-man roster this year or will become Ruke 5 eligible.


WilliamJPellas said...

As impressive as McCutchen was in his rookie season, it bears repeating that his minor league numbers were merely good, not great. In fact, many observers, myself included, were surprised he did as well as he did, which means there might still be a thought, however small, that he might have overachieved in 2009. Don't get me wrong, the kid can obviously---definitely---play. No doubt. At worse, we've got a superb pure center fielder who can steal some bases and give you decent power for his position. I'm just not quite ready to anoint him an All Star until I see him over a full season in 2010.

Agreed that Jones does well for a transplanted 1B, though of course 1B is still his best position. Seems to me he should be the full time first baseman---at minimum, the regular starter against righthanders---and that we should either bit the bullet and keep running Brandon Moss out there, or, preferably, spend some bucks on a free agent to be our regular or semi-regular right fielder. Here again I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Nate McLouth would sure have looked great at one of the corner spots; a Milledge-McCutchen-McLouth outfield would be one of the best in the National League.

Speaking of Milledge, as long as he doesn't have any more brain malfunctions, I expect him to hit for more power and in general be a better than average corner outfielder. Nothing to complain about, though probably nothing to be overly excited about, either. But if he can give us something like .280-25-90, that'll work.

I'll say again that Tabata is probably not going to be a big power hitter, and I really wish people would stop pressuring him that way. The guy is a pure hitter who will blast line drives all over the park; I would be perfectly happy if he was a righthanded Raul Ibanez or Bobby Abreu type, especially the kind of numbers Abreu put up this year, ie, high .200s, 15 HR, 103 RBI. That's what I see in Tabata's future, and there's nothing wrong with that whatsoever. I don't expect Tabata to hit more than 15-20 HR most seasons, but he is capable of 40-50 doubles and I think he can hit .300-plus. I agree that he probably won't arrive here full time until 2011.

It is downright shocking to see that there really isn't anyone else above A-ball in our entire system. A quick scan of Altoona's roster at Double-A shows decidedly average statistics from everyone except Tabata. Oh, and both the starting RF and LF were 27 this season, definitely well past the prospect stage for most guys at that level.

At Triple-A, it's the same story. Lots of four-A and organizational soldier types, practically nobody who is a true prospect. As you say, Ron, there is some interesting talent in A-ball, but those guys are a long way from Pittsburgh. I would think that a good Double or Triple-A outfielder would have to be the prime target in any trades we might make going forward.

Ron Ieraci said...

No disagreements, Will. McCutchen has to prove consistency, but I think the discipline he showed will keep him on the mark, although the power was a surprise and may be just a blip.

I always considered Tabata as a Morgan with more power and less speed, not a three hole hitter. Hernandez is a Tabata lite.

As far as the system, you're right; the upper minors are loaded with organizational vets.

That's the legacy of the Littlefield drafts, focusing on twenty-something college guys. It also explains why the Pirates are aggressive in promoting players.

It wouldn't hurt to do a little shopping here, along with a middle infielder, at least as a stop gap.