Sunday, February 24, 2013

Right Field Rumble

The most interesting battle that will be waged in camp is for the right field/fourth outfielder spot. Cucth is untouchable in center, Starling Marte will get a long leash in left, and that leaves Travis Snider, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley and Jerry Sands duking it out for what are likely two remaining positions; Garrett Jones can serve as the fifth outfielder, if ever needed.

We know what Cutch brings to the table. The 26 year old should only improve, and even if he regresses some at the plate, setting a baseline of .295/25/80 with 90-100 runs and 20-25 stolen bases is reasonable. He has a stranglehold on the three hole in the lineup.

Marte has generated the most heat among Pirate prospects since, well, Cutch.  He showed flashes last season with a .257/.300/.437 line and 12 stolen bases in 47 games. The first full season is a leavening pit for even the most touted rookie, but the Bucs seem prepared to throw him in the fire this year.

That leaves the gang of four. Snider, 25, is said to have the inside track, and last year, after he came over in the Brad Lincoln deal, Hurdle put together a lot of lineup cards with Marte at leadoff and Snider in the two hole. He's not ideal for the spot, and his power numbers took a tumble as his slugging % dropped to an all time personal MLB low of .328, not an average you'd associate with a corner outfielder.

But that may be an adjustment to becoming a top of the order guy - his OBP was his best since 2008 at .324. Still, he has to improve his .250 BA, show lots more gap power, work on pumping his 10% walk rate up a bit and cut down on the 23% K rate he had in Pittsburgh. There is the suspicion that he played hurt with a sore hammy much of the time, and Clint Hurdle didn't give him much down time to recover. So 2013 should be a clean slate for him after a tumultuous 2012 season.

Eno Sarris of Fangraphs wrote of the trade that brought him to Pittsburgh "If he can’t walk or make more contact in the majors, then you like it for the Jays. But if you think that Snider can trim the strikeouts while keeping the power, then you might feel that Alex Anthopolous just made a bad trade." That's what the Pirates need to find out this year.

JT has been going downhill since he hit .299 in 2010, batting .266 in 2011 and just .243 last season. He had a .347 OBP in his first two years, but just .315 in 2012. But he's 24, and his greatest hurdle still seems to be maturity. Tabata was hurt last year - tight legs will likely be a career-long problem with him because of his body build - and commendably tried to play through it, but by reducing his game speed. Playing hurt and going at a trot isn't a very wise path to choose on the MLB road.

The Bucs sent him down and he recovered his wheels. In September, in a very small sample of 39 AB, he hit .333 with a .422 OBP, ideal numbers for the top of the order. Ah, but that maturity thing - he wanted to play winter ball, but the Pirate FO, acting like adults for a change, made him stay home to work on conditioning. We'll see how that pays off this season.

Presley, 27, won the left field spot coming out of camp in 2012, but a line of .237/.279/.405 disabused the Bucs of that notion fairly quickly. He got a pretty good look, getting in 104 games with 370 PA, and kinda confirmed what everyone suspected: he's a MLB fourth outfielder. He brings decent speed, hustle and a good glove to the team, but a 5% walk rate coupled with a 19% whiff rate makes him a tough player to plug into the top of the order with any regularity.

Sands, 25, is a guy the Bucs had an eye on; Clint Hurdle said they tried to get him last year (probably during the short-lived Drew Sutton era) and was a key piece of the Joel Hanrahan trade. The minor league basher is hoped to give the Bucs a RH stick in right field. LA gave him a 61 game audition in 2010, and he was OK, putting up a 103 OPS+ but without the power they expected. He was buried last season by the Dodgers (he had to stay in AAA as a PTBNL), and Boston quickly flipped him to Pittsburgh.

He's not a top of the order player, nor did the Bucs get him to be one. If he plays, Neil Walker has to go back to the two hole, where he hit for a third of the season in 2012, and Sands will likely bat sixth.

The logistics seem to make the final cuts fairly straightforward. All four are on the 40-man roster, but Presley and Sands have an option remaining while Tabata and Snider don't. And don't forget Felix Pie, who is also a capable fourth outfield insurance policy at Indy.

The Pirates have a lot of depth in the position, but a lot of question marks, too - Cutch is the only proven commodity. We expected a couple of minor deals to clear the upcoming logjam, but it looks like the Bucs are gonna sit tight for awhile and see how outfield shakes out before making a move.

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