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 the vast expanses of left and center. They signed Matt Diaz as a platoon mate of Garrett Jones to provide some thunder. On paper, it worked. On the field, it didn't. Diaz and later Ryan Ludwick failed to deliver, and bench outfielder Xavier Paul was released after the season.
Well, Jones is still around, although penciled in at first base this time around (and who knew the Yankees liked him?). Nate McLouth was reclaimed from the Braves. And Alex Presley, after a nice showing as an injury replacement, will get the early nod in left. So those five - McCutchen, Tabata, Presley, McLouth and Jones, the classic platoon 1B/corner OF'er - look like this year's outfield patrol.
The man who stirs the drink 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.
He faded badly at the end of the year, with a terrible closing month (.171) 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) - which were about as evenly distributed as could be.
McCutch played 158 games, starting 155. We wouldn't make much of his September swoon, at least this time around. He tried to single handedly counter the Pirate dog-days tailspin by going for the fences instead of sticking to what he does best, stinging liners and shooting balls through the infield. Hopefully, that's a lesson learned by the 25 year old that will carry over.
He doesn't enter his arbitration years until 2013, just missing Super Two status this season. His contract status will be the ongoing drama for bloggers and fans.
Jose Tabata will also play everyday, flipping from left to right field. In the 91 games he got into last year, 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 continued injuries are troublesome; he's been haunted by them since the
Pirates traded for him in 2008, and last season was the same ol'. He pulled his quad in June, then came back in August and broke his wrist. But he'll be around for awhile, fragile or not.
He signed with the Bucs through 2016, with three following club option years, so he's one player that the team has locked up. The silver lining of his injury-plagued season was that he provided Alex Presley with an opening, and he ran with it.
Presley, 26, had a lukewarm September showing in 2010, and started the 2011 season at Indy. He was smoking the ball for the Indians (.333/8/41 in 87 games), but the Bucs kept him on hold until JT went down in late June.
Tabata's aches and breaks 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 emptor: Presley has a .327 BA/.373 OBP against righties, but just .231/.261 against lefties, and his slugging percentage drops 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 just 20).
Presley was one of two players mentioned by Clint Hurdle as being on a short leash to start the year, and we're sure the splits have the brass wondering if he's everyday material or a platoon/4th OF'er candidate. They may still be looking for a corner with more pop, too.
The one thing the 2011 season produced was three starting outfielders who will set the table this year, hitting 1-2-3: Presley, Tabata, McCutch. We'd probably flip
Presley and Tabata, moving the lefty to the two hole just to open a hole on the right side and break up the righty-lefty scheme, but Hurdle hasn't asked us, sooo...
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 is growing into a prototypical three hole guy, especially if he plays within himself.
That will give the Pirates an outfield that's speedy, pretty fair defensively, and tailor-made to fill the top of the Bucco order. They're interchangeable, too, as Tabata and Presley have both the wheels and experience to roam center field.
The FO cleaned out the OF bench of 2011 and entrusted the fourth outfield role to Nate McLouth. The Pirates inked him to a one-year, $1.75M contract with $450K in possible performance bonuses. McLouth, 30, was a 25th-round draft pick by the Pirates in 2000 and was with the team until he was dealt to the Atlanta Braves in June, 2009, for Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke and Gorkys Hernandez.
Nate the Great had his Pittsburgh coming out party in 2008, when he hit .276 with 26 homers and 94 RBIs, leading the NL in doubles (46), winning a Gold Glove and earning an All-Star nod. But his brief Brave career was dismal, marked by injury and a .229 BA. So the Bucs are rolling the dice that McLouth can again be productive in a Pirate uniform. His center field days are likely done, but even as a corner outfielder he's considered an upgrade over Xavier Paul.
While the outfield looks like the offensive generator for the Pirates this year, the reason Presley is on thin ice and McLouth is the fourth outfielder is because
Pittsburgh has a couple of guys in the minors that are close to playing in the show.
Gorkys Hernandez might be the best defensive OF'er in the Pirate system. He's 24, and had a poor season at Altoona in 2009 after the Bucs got him from the Braves as part of the McLouth deal. But he's put together back-to-back solid years at the dish in 2010-11 for the Curve and Indy, averaging .275 and stealing 38 bases in 50 tries.
But Hernandez's best value to the club may be as trade bait. He has McCutch ahead of him, and closing quickly is Starling Marte, who has been popping up in Top 100 Prospect lists after his year with the Curve.
Marte, 23, was named the Eastern League's 2011 Rookie of the Year. His line at Altoona 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. There's been some talk that he could eventually bump McCutch to a corner position; we'll hold our judgment on that call.
Behind him is Robbie Grossman, 22, of Bradenton, who was named the Pirates minor-league player of the year after being a high school sixth-round pick in the 2008 draft. Grossman is a tweener who probably projects best as a corner outfielder in the show.
He hit .294/13/56 for High A Bradenton with a .418 OBP, drawing 104 walks. But he also K'ed 111 times, so the Bucs will be certain to work on his aggressiveness as he journeys through the system. But ESPN's Keith Law named him as one of his Top 100 Propects, so it looks like there's something there for the staff to tease out of him.
The Bucs are also excited about Josh Bell, a power-hitting high school outfielder that they signed in a way overslot deal in last year's draft. The 19 year old has already cracked a couple of Top Five Pirate Prospect lists without swinging a bat in anger.
Andrew Lambo, 22, is still on the radar. The big lefty is a corner outfielder who was overmatched at Indy after playing pretty solidly at the AA level. But with his age and some power potential, the Pirates haven't given up on his career - yet. Lambo isn't on the 40-man roster, and this may be his "show me" year."
They also have a couple of outfield candidates who signed minor league deals but with invites to camp. They're Brandon Boggs, a corner outfielder, and slash outfielders Andy Fox and Nick Evans. Evans probably has the best shot at sticking, but that depends more on how first base shakes out than with his skills in the pasture.
If Presley can solve lefties and Tabata remains healthy enough to play 135 games, the OF is set. They have depth at Indy in Hernandez and Marte along with the vets, and up-and-comers like Grossman, Bell, and Lambo. The future is arriving - the OF is one spot where the Pirates have some organizational depth - and if Presley/Tabata falter, it could mark an early beginning of the Marte era.