The Bucs went into the past season wondering who would flank Cutch, hoping that Jose Tabata and Alex Presley could hold the fort with an occasional hand from Nate McLouth and Garrett Jones plus the eventual emergence of Starling Marte. Well, guess what - swap Travis Snider for McLouth, and you have the same situation in 2013.
We won't go on about 26 year old Andrew McCutchen. A line of .327/31/96 with 31 homers, 107 runs and 20 stolen bases netted him another All-Star nod, and his 194 hits led the league. Did he fade down the stretch? Yep. But it wasn't realistic to think that he'd continue to hit .391 like he did over a three-month span, nor was it realistic to think he'd finish August and September by hitting .253, either. That's how high expectations for him have risen now that he's entered the elite player club.
All you can hope of Cutch is to play at a more consistent level, smoothing out the highs and the lows. He carried the team during the summer months with his scorching bat and his mates fed off it, but the squad couldn't pick it up on their own when he returned to earth during the dog days. Our main concern is that he also had a September swoon in 2011, which makes us wonder if he couldn't use a couple of two-day breaks when getaway game scheduling allows for it during the season - and some help in the lineup.
But McCutch isn't the question in the outfield; his running mates are. Both JT and Presley were shipped to Indy by mid season after virtually being handed the corner outfield spots, with Drew Sutton, Josh Harrison, Yamaico Navarro and company taking over until reinforcements Starling Marte and Travis Snider arrived, and they both promptly lost considerable time with injuries, making their evaluations problematic.
Jose Tabata, 24, got a contract guaranteed at $15M and the starting RF job during a 2011 season that saw him hit .266 but with a .349 OBP, making him a fit at the top of the order. In 2010, he batted .299, and led NL left fielders in range factor/game (2.09). He tied for 8th in the voting for NL Rookie of the Year.
But injuries have been his bane. In 2011, he tore a quad and in 2012 he tweaked a hammy, which led to some half-speed play and his demotion to Indy, where he spent most of July and August. He came back with a vengeance, hitting .284 after his return and drawing a dozen walks in 94 PA for a .376 OBP. Still, Tabata finished the season with just a .243 BA and .315 OBP.
He's got to prove to Clint Hurdle and the FO that he's dependable; JT only got 15 starts from August 19th onward. His speed is no longer plus, lost to body type and tightly wound wheels. Tabata should spent the winter stretching his body and his mind; his conditioning and attitude will be keys to his 2013 season. He's still young and a top-of-the-order guy when he's right, and it's on him to be right next season. His age and affordable six-year deal, with options until 2019, should make him attractive as trade bait, so this could be his make-or-break campaign in Pittsburgh.
Alex Presley, 27, was the feel-good story of 2011, when he put up a slash of .298/.339/.465 in 52 games, and earned the 2012 LF spot out of camp. After a decent April, he hit .208 from May-July, and The King was yo-yoed back-and-forth with Indy, eventually leading to Starling Marte's promotion.
He ended the season a .237 average, with an OBP of .270 but again with a slugging % over .400, as he did show a little extra-base bop with the bat. Presley had a reverse split at the plate last season, and career-wise has a pretty equal performance against righties and lefties. With that even split, decent speed and the ability to handle all three OF spots, he's looking more and more like a MLB fourth outfielder.
Starling Marte, 24, was freed from Indy on July 26th, and played in 23 consecutive games before he went down with an oblique injury. He put up a line of .257/.300/.437 with 12 stolen bases and an OPS of 104 in 47 games his rookie season. Oddly, he hit more homers (5) and triples (6) than doubles (3), but proved to be pretty much as advertised.
Marte has a rifle arm, great range, plus speed, and some power. He also is raw - why do so few of the Bucco farmhands seem to have any polish when they hit the show? - showing an erratic command of the strike zone, some dizzying route running, and attacking the bases like he was at Magee Field instead of PNC Park.
We're not sure exactly how the Bucs plan to handle him. They delayed calling him up, even when they had to send Drew Sutton to the pasture, and didn't start him regularly after he returned from his injury. Logic says he should be the everyday left fielder in 2013 and begin learning the MLB ropes full time instead of being treated with kid gloves.
Travis Snider, 24, came over on a deadline deal with Toronto for Brad Lincoln, and was considered a long-term investment, not a rent-a-player. Unfortunately, his hamstring didn't cooperate, and the Pirates didn't get a very good look at him during the stretch.
He hit .250 with a .324 OPB but a very disappointing .328 in slugging as a Pirate. We're willing to concede that he may have been trying to fit into the two hole, where the Bucs have been at loggerheads, trading power to reach base. It also may just be a case of Snider playing through a bad leg. Maybe it was adjusting to a new team/league. It's hard to tell, as he's never had 300 AB during a season and just one double digit home run year, and the 145 PA he had as a Bucco provides an awfully slim sample.
The Pirates pulled the trigger to get him because of his upside, and hopefully he'll be fit when he reports to camp. In his career, he's been protected against lefties, but has a lifetime .238 BA against them, so he's not quite as totally at sea against southpaws like Pedro or GI Jones are. He'll be arb eligible after next season, so the Bucs have four years of team control, and would very much like him to take command in right field.
He's another guy who will have to emphasize conditioning in the off season. Aside from the hammy, he's had wrist problems for years. Another sidebar will be to see if he can adjust to using the whole field. Early in his career, the Blue Jays made him a pull hitter to take advantage of his power, but Pittsburgh uses an up the middle approach for its hitters, so we'll see how the conflict between the Clemente Wall and his BA works out.
And, of course, there is old standby Garrett Jones. We've discussed him plenty in prior posts, and believe the Pirates would very much like to be able to use him at first base against righties instead of playing in the shadow of the Clemente Wall.
Par for the course, the Bucs' future in the outfield is at the lower levels, where Gregory Polanco, Josh Bell, Barrett Barnes and Mel Rojas are all prospects to different degrees and all years away from the show. But with a 27 year old, a 26 year old and three 24 year old players on the roster and all under team control for years, that's a bearable situation.
The blueprint, as we see it, is to man the outfield with Cutch, Starling Marte and Travis Snider doing the heavy work, using JT and Alex Presley (one of which would become redundant under that scenario) as the insurance policies.