Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Outfield

In the last post, we looked at the FO; today we'll look at the OF. The Pirate plan going into 2011 was to use PNC's right field to stash a basher while McCutch & JT covered the top of the order and expanses of left and center, so they brought in Matt Diaz to platoon with Garrett Jones. Both had some bop in their background, something that Delwyn Young and Lastings Milledge lacked last season.

But it sure didn't work out they way they drew it up. Oh, Jones did his part, with a line of .262/14/50 and .356 OBP against righties, even if he was at sea against southpaws. Diaz did hit .295 against lefties, but had just seven extra-base hits in 132 ABs, absolutely dismal numbers for a man the FO planned to plop somewhere in the middle of the order and earning him a ticket to Atlanta.

Then Jose Tabata got hurt. Twice. First, he pulled his quad in June. Then he came back in August and broke his hand. In the 91 games he got into, he ran up a .266/4/21 line with 53 runs scored and 16 stolen bases, which was OK but could hardly be called a breakthrough year. And the injuries are troublesome; he's been haunted by them since the Pirates traded for him in 2008. But he did do two things to help solidify the future:

First, he signed with the Bucs through 2016, with three following club option years, so he's one player that the team has locked up. Secondly, his injuries provided Alex Presley with an opening, and he ran with it. Presley had a lukewarm September showing in 2010, and started the 2011 season at Indy. He was smoking the ball there, but the Bucs kept him on the farm until JT went down in late June.

Tabata's aches and pains gave The King 52 games to show his stuff, sandwiched around his own trip to the DL with a bruised hand. He hit .298 and fit in well at the top of the order, and when JT returned, it was to right field. Presley had taken over left.

He has his own caveat: Presley had a .327 BA/.373 OBP against righties, but just .231/.261 against lefties, and his slugging percentage dropped over 175 points, too, in an admittedly small sampling. So that will bear watching as his career moves forward. (JT & McCutch's splits are much more manageable. Tabata sports a 40 point career spread and McCutchen's is 20).

Of course, the linchpin is McCutch. And as he goes, so goes the club. He played in 70 of Pittsburgh's 72 wins with a line of .337/16/58. He was on the field for 87 of the team's 90 losses, and put up a line of .198/7/31 in the defeats.

His consistency was questioned at the end of the year, and he did have a terrible closing month and BA splits that seemed to show that the grind got to him, hitting .280 in the season's opening three months and .247 in the last three. But he was consistent in his production splits - RBI (41-48), runs scored (47-40), homers (11-12) and doubles (17-17) were about as evenly distributed as could be.

McCutch played 158 games, starting 155. We wouldn't make much of his September swoon. If the season wore on him, we'd guess it was more mentally than physically exhausting, a fairly predictable result after riding the wave into mid-July before crashing.

At any rate, the one thing the season has produced is the three guys that will be penciled in to start in the outfield at set the table in 2012, hitting 1-2-3: Presley, Tabata, McCutch. We'd probably flip Presley and Tabata, just to add a little more power to the two hole, open up the right side and break up the righty-lefty scheme, but that's just nitpicking.

The important part of equation is that Andrew McCutchen is finally in his rightful position, batting third, after being jerked all around the order. He's averaged 20 homers, 90 runs scored and 70+ RBI over the last two years and has grown into the prototypical three hole guy.

That will give the Pirates an outfield that's speedy, pretty fair defensively, and tailor-made to fill the top of the Bucco order. The next question is who will join McCutch, JT and The King?

Xavier Paul and Ryan Ludwick are the spare OF'ers. Paul (.259/2/20 & 16 SBs in 251 PAs) has some use being lefty, fast, and a good defensive player, but his lack of plate discipline was exposed when he had to play regularly. Ludwick is likewise a decent fielder, although without Paul's speed, and didn't do much at the plate (.232/2/11 in 133 PAs) as a Bucco.

Paul's future may be tied to Garrett Jones. If Jones returns to first base, Paul could be part of the Pirates bench mix.  He's out of options but cheap, as he doesn't reach arbitration until 2013. Ludwick earned $6.775M in 2011 and will be a free agent. He'll almost certainly be allowed to walk in the off season.

Pittsburgh has a couple of guys in the minors that are close. Gorkys Hernandez might be the best defensive OF'er in the Pirate system. He just turned 24, and had a poor season at Altoona in 2009 after the Bucs got him from the Braves as part of the Nate McLouth deal. But he's put together back-to-back solid years at the dish the last two seasons for the Curve and Indy. He's averaged .275 and stolen 38 bases in 50 tries.

The Bucs' prospect with a bullet is Starling Marte, Altoona's OF'er who was named the Eastern league's 2011 Rookie of the Year. His 2011 line was .332/12/50 with 90 runs and 24 stolen bases, along with a rep as a tremendous outfielder tools-wise. He could be a year away after the Indy coaches work on honing his defensive routes and improving his plate discipline. And Marte won't turn 23 until next week.

If Presley can repeat and Tabata remains healthy enough to play 135 games, the OF is set. They have depth in Hernandez and Marte, along with guys on the move like Robbie Grossman, 22, at Bradenton, who was named the Pirates minor-league player of the year, and Andrew Lambo, 23, at Altoona. They also have high hopes for Josh Bell, 19, their second round prep selection in the 2011 draft. Marte and Lambo have to be added to the 40 man roster in the off season to be protected.

If the FO decides to deal to fill an infield or pitching hole, this outfield is easily the deepest position in the system to draw a trade candidate from. So when the hot stove fires up, the OF'ers should provide plenty of fuel.

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