First Pitch: Pirates Could Soon Have the Best Outfield in Baseball

When Gregory Polanco arrives, he could give the Pirates the best outfield in the majors. (Photos: David Hague, Tim Williams)
When Gregory Polanco arrives, he could give the Pirates the best outfield in the majors. (Photos: David Hague, Tim Williams)

The Pittsburgh Pirates have an MVP center fielder. They also have a center fielder who is a playmaker, and uses his center field skills to be one of the best defensive left-fielders in the game. In the wings they have a third center fielder who has the potential to be just as good as the MVP, and who could arrive by mid-season 2014.

Most teams would kill for just one good center fielder. The Pirates will most likely have three of them in the majors by the end of the upcoming season. That trio will be together at least through the 2018 season, which gives the Pirates a good chance of having the best outfield in the majors at some point between mid-season 2014 and the end of the 2018 season.

Everyone knows about Andrew McCutchen. That’s not just everyone in Pittsburgh. That’s everyone. He has gone from being the most popular players on the Pirates to one of the most popular players in sports. This off-season he has proposed on Ellen, and has presented an award at the Country Music Awards. And that’s following a season where he was on the cover of MLB: The Show, all before winning his first MVP award.

Pittsburgh fans know about Starling Marte, but might not realize just how good Marte actually is. A lot of focus goes on his strikeouts and lack of walks, but not as much focus goes toward all of the things he does exceptionally well. He was a 4.6 WAR player in 2013, which had him tied as the 27th best position player in the majors. He does have the strikeout and walk issues, but Marte ranked 7th out of 140 qualified hitters last year in base running, and had the best UZR/150 ratio of any left fielder in the game. All of this came in his first full season in the majors. By comparison, Andrew McCutchen had a 3.5 WAR in his first full season in the majors. So I don’t think we’ve seen all we’re going to see from Marte.

Then there’s the big addition to the group in 2014: Gregory Polanco. Today he was named the MVP and the Rookie of the Year in the Dominican Winter League. I don’t put much stock in the Winter Leagues, but his success this off-season is notable since the DWL is the toughest Winter League, and is the equivalent of Triple-A pitching. Polanco hasn’t had much time against Triple-A pitchers, so the success this off-season was great to see.

Neal Huntington has said Polanco won’t be an option for Opening Day. That’s no surprise, as there are developmental and financial reasons to hold him back. The financial reasons are more important for the long-term. He profiles as an impact talent, so the Pirates will want to get an extra year of control (which they can get by holding him in Triple-A the first three weeks of the season), and they will want to avoid an extra year of arbitration (which can be accomplished with a call-up in mid-June or later).

Polanco probably isn’t going to be an impact talent from day one. However, he has the potential to be a good hitter from day one. As far as expected debuts, I’d put him closer to Andrew McCutchen’s debut (.286/.365/.471) than Starling Marte’s debut (.257/.300/.437). I’d also put Polanco’s upside closer to McCutchen than Marte. Just like Marte, Polanco can provide value on defense and on the bases. He’s a plus base runner, and has a ton of range and a great arm in the outfield. He profiles as the best center fielder of the group, although I don’t see McCutchen moving off the position.

Unlike Marte, Polanco has outstanding plate patience, which leads to a higher on-base percentage, and the ability to consistently hit for a higher average. He also has some power, with the present ability for a lot of extra base hits and double-digit homers. In the future it’s easy to see him hitting 30 homers a year if he adds a bit more weight to his tall and skinny frame.

You can dream on Polanco’s upside. He’s got the potential to have a bat like McCutchen, with defense and base running skills like Marte. It wouldn’t be a surprise to me if he ends up the best of the group. That’s better than two guys who were top 30 position players in 2013, one of which was the MVP. Even if Polanco falls short in one area — whether it’s hitting, power, defense, or he loses speed — he’s still going to provide value in many other areas.

There are many reasons why I think that the 2014 Pirates could be a better all around team than the 2013 Pirates. One of the big reasons is Polanco. The Pirates saw their right fielders struggle during the first four months of 2013. Jose Tabata started hitting in August, but that was around the time Starling Marte went down. They added Marlon Byrd and finally had a fully productive outfield in September. This year they will be starting with Tabata and Travis Snider. Maybe Tabata carries over his late season success. Maybe Snider’s problems last year were really due to his toe injury. But worse case, they struggle once again, and Polanco is ready to take over mid-season, without the need to wait and make a deal for someone like Byrd. The Pirates could have half a season of a fully productive outfield, rather than just one month like in 2013.

Beyond the 2014 season, the addition of Polanco could easily give the Pirates the best outfield in the majors. Last year the Red Sox led the majors with a 15.7 WAR from their outfielders. The Pirates were in third place with a 13.1 WAR. That was largely due to the 12.8 WAR combined from McCutchen and Marte. It won’t take much from Polanco to put the trio in first place.

Links and Notes

**The 2014 Prospect Guide is now available. The book is currently on back order after the first shipment sold out. That first shipment matched the total number of books that were sold in 2013. The next shipment arrives at the end of this week, and I’m hoping to get all of the orders out by Friday. You can place your order here. The eBook version will be available tomorrow morning, so check the site tomorrow for that announcement.

**Pirates Lose Jerry Sands To Tampa Bay Rays. They would have been able to keep Sands if he cleared waivers. I don’t disagree with the decision to waive him. He was out of options, and would have eventually needed to go on waivers, or be added to the active roster on Opening Day. I didn’t see the latter happening, so there was no reason keeping him around in the short-term. I still think Sands has the potential to crack the majors, and he might have a better shot in the AL with a DH. He would have been fifth on the Opening Day depth chart with the Pirates, behind Snider, Tabata, Andrew Lambo, and Jaff Decker. Once Polanco arrived, Sands wouldn’t have had a spot with the team.

**Pirates Lose Ryan Reid on Waivers to the Mets. Here is a move that shows the Pirates’ pitching depth. Reid is a good pitcher, and is good enough to pitch in the majors. He’s not good enough to be a full-time relief option in the majors, looking more like a depth option. I’d place him behind Duke Welker, Miles Mikolas, and Jared Hughes as far as guys currently on the 40-man roster. He’s about the same talent as a lot of the minor league free agents they’ve been adding this off-season. The difference is that guys like Jay Jackson and Josh Kinney didn’t require a 40-man spot, which isn’t the case with Reid. There was a time where the Pirates would have had no problem keeping Reid on the 40-man roster. That’s not the case any more.

**Gregory Polanco Takes Home MVP and ROY Awards.

**Winter Leagues: Polanco Finishes as Dominican League Leader in OPS

**From the weekend: Why Nick Kingham Would Be Too Much to Pay For Ike Davis

  • And to think we have Austin Meadows too!

  • #funwithprojections fangraphs has Alex Presley as a 1.9 WAR player in 2014.

    just thought that was interesting and didnt know where else to share it.

    • I looked that up too. Hope he does well. Was kinda glad he got traded, he didn’t deserve to be in AAA.

    • Presley was a kid who was all but gone from baseball, and then the light went off between his ears in 2010, and he contributed greatly to the Pirates the past few years. However, he (and other OF) in the Pirates system were facing the emergence of Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, so their need was decreasing. I am glad that he went to a team where he could get more playing time.

  • Let’s not induct Polanco into the HOF just yet. We’ve gotta wait at least until he is arbitration eligible. 🙂

    He tracked through the minors about a year later than Cutch, but was also more productive at most levels. But Cutch and Marte both have terrific work habits from what I hear. Hopefully, Polanco already has or will adopt similar habits.

    If he is so close to being ready, should NH start kicking the tires on Tabata for Rizzo from the Cubs or for Brett Wallace from the Astros? Rizzo is an excedllent 1B and had a 114 OPS+ against RHP last year; Wallace is pretty bad with the glove but had a 120 OPS+ against RHP. Both clubs have 1B pospects in their top 10’s (Vogelbach with the Cubs and Singleton with the Astros).

    • ??? Im not sure I understand what you are saying here. If your saying that the cubs would actually give up Rizzo for Tabata then YES! Don’t wait. Do it now. The problem is that Rizzo would take a WHOLE LOT to get in a trade. Tabata would not be close to the asking price IMO.

      • Tabata is a better player than Rizzo. Rizzo’s OPS+ against RHP was 114, against lefties it was 93. Tabata’s numbers were respectively 119 and 97. Rizzo is a better HR hitter than Tabata and is a better fielder (at a less demanding position). Tabata is better at, well, everything else. Plus Tabata is definitively cost-controlled, Rizzo is stll in the arb process. Tabata’s a year older, though. I could see throwing in a Joely Rodriguez or Jin deJhang if pressed, but not much more.

        I’d prefer Wallace – I think being on a contender might encourage him to take a few groundballs now and then, and he came up through the minors as a (bad) 3B. He should easily be able to be an upgrade over GIJ in all phases of the game except, perhaps, still photos.

        • Buddy there is no way in a million years the Cubs or anyone would give Anthony Rizzo for Jose Tabata. No Jose Tabata is not a better player and never will be.

          I do like the idea but it would take a lot more to get Rizzo. Also the Cubs are loaded with big time OF prospects. They would probably want a top pitching prospect like Kingham or Glasnow for Rizzo.

        • He was a better player than Rizzo in 2013. That doesn’t mean he’s a better player than Rizzo period.

      • Besides the fact that Rizzo has now really not done a lot in 3 different orginizations,Theo is not about to admit they made a mistake and trade him,particularly within the division.

        • Yeah, that is my point. Rizzo has become the traveling “might be.” But his current contract has 6 more years at $36.25 million. Tabata has 3 years left at a total of 11.5 million, with three more team options that, if they decided to keep him, would total another $22.5 million. So there is a savings of up to $24.75 million for the Cubs to do this deal.

          That’s not earth-shaking in the MLB world, but it surely matters, particularly if they eventually deal Samardzija for prospects and try to sign Masahiro Tanaka.

          Also, I did suggest throwing in Joely Rodriguez as a part of the deal. He’s pretty much expendable in the Bucs’ system, but would be pretty high on their pecking order of pitching prospects.

          • r: I agree with CS that if the Pirates were ever given the opportunity to trade Tabata for Rizzo, it would happen immediately. The Cubs gave up Andrew Cashner, a RHSP who had 26 starts for SD in 2013 with a 10-9 record, 3.09 ERA, and a 2.2 WAR. Rizzo is an excellent fielder, but did not do as well as expected at the plate in 2013. I think 2013 was the first full year for both Cashner and Rizzo, but that trade looks to be favoring SD at this point. Cashner’s stats are not flukes either – at AA I think he had close to a 14 K/9 and a 2 W/9. It looks like SD got a top of the Rotation type of pitcher. For all of that, Rizzo is not moving anywhere. If you go by the UZR ratings, Rizzo is tops with Moreland next, then a long way down to Smoak, and then Davis. And, with Satin and Duda already at 1B for the Mets, Dykstra at AA, and Dominic Smith as their first draft pick in 2013, they are not keeping Davis for 2014.

            I do like Dan Vogelbach, but the kid the Bucs may have the best chance to get could be Matt Skole of the Nationals, a 3B who is being moved to 1B because they already have Zimmerman for 5 or 6 more years, and Anthony Rendon waiting his turn at 3B. LaRoche is currently the 1B for the Nats, so something has to give. Skole missed all of 2013 due to a freak arm injury, and played in the AFL with mixed results. I still have hopes that Matt Curry can return to the form he exhibited a few years ago at Lo A, but seems to have hit the wall at AA. He was injured most of 2013, so this season will tell.

  • I think people lose sight of how little actual professional experience Marte has which makes me feel the ceiling is very high for him. And one thing I love about him is his passion for the game. When he was making those mistakes that young players make you could see the pain in his face because he knew it. And there was one veteran who I often saw talk to Starling after those plays and it was Gaby Sanchez. One thing we have to remember about Starling is he can strikeout 4 times and look horrible doing it and then in his last at bat he can turn the game around in your favor and that is a great asset.

    • I agree, we are seeing a work in progress, IMO, Marte has a higher ceiling than McCutchen has because both have 5 tools, but Marte’s 5 tools are a little better, Marte is a more talented outfielder, the only thing he has to do to catch McCutchen is hit better and he has the skills to do that.

      • Marte’s hit tool is not on Cutch’s level and that’s the most important one.

        • I see a lot of Clemente’s swagger in Marte. Remember, it took three or four years of MLB experience before Clemente became Roberto, although Clemente started with the Pirates at a younger age. Marte will be an .800+ OPS player in a year or two, he’s close now. Like fine wine he’ll get better with age.

    • That’s a double-edged sword. Marte will continue to adjust to the league, but the league will also adjust to Marte. He flashed bright in 2013, but it’s his ability to adjust when everyone has the book on him that will determine what kind of mark he ultimately makes on the league. I guarantee you that, next year, teams will be looking hat Marte’s WAR and figuring out ways to handle him. Fortunately, the defense should always play.

  • Of course, Marte could break a leg, McCutchen could want a revised contract, Polanco could contract fear of open spaces disease, Alvarez could blow up to 400 lbs. and the entire pitching staff could lose their pitching Guru and suck without him. I can’t wait for the “wait till this happens crowd” to appear! Oh! I know, I could go over to another site or turn on the radio or tv and get that right now. Polanco only needs to get off to an 0-15 start and the we told you he was just a prospect will start. IMO, Polanco is a bigger more refined version of Marte and hopefully when he does come up Hurdle does not panic if he does not get off to a quick start.
    The talent level of the 2015-2016 Pittsburgh Pirates will be off the charts, I can’t say that automatically translates into wins, but it sure gives them a shot at winning a WS.

  • Can’t wait to get my alternate black jersey with “POLANCO,” across the back!!

  • I am looking forward to the day where Marte is our WORST OFer, yet still ranking that high in WAR!

    woo hoo

    • I think Marte is going to be our BEST OFer! People are way under estimating the talent of this kid. McCutchen is the MVP of the league and I think Polonco will be an All-Star so that tells you how high I am on Marte.

      At least you aren’t saying we should trade Starling for Brandon Belt like some clowns were on here the other day. I like Brandon Belt and would love the Bucs to get him BUT Starling Marte should NOT go anywhere!!!!

  • Tim….if my book doesn’t arrive today, consider my monthly donation CANCELLED!!! I will NEVER again talk nicely about you and your blog on other blogs EVER again.

    Everyone got theirs before me last year and I am getting pretty sick and tired of being treated like career minor leaguer.

    I get no frikkin respect around here!

    Rodknee Danger Foo Maus

  • I also would prefer to give Lambo a fair shot to see if it has all come together. If it has that’s great. If it hasn’t you can make a move later. I believe NH will have to force Hurdle to do it though. He likes his vets with nothing left. Barajas, Inge, McDonald, Morneau & Barmes. They stayed in lineup & on team despite doing nothing to earn it.

  • The long, cold, dark days of being a Pirates fan are over! Like the promise of an early summer day, it appears the sun will be shining brightly for a long, long time.

    My desire is to have a Pirates vs Cardinals rivalry be like the Red Sox vs Yankees rivalry for the next decade or so. Both organizations are flush with young top tier talent poised to break out. It promises to be a golden age of sports rivalry for these two organizations.

  • Tim,

    I got the book and it is great but I do have a quick question. I noticed Kyle McPherson isn’t in the book, I’m guessing it is because he wasn’t in the organization as of the print date, but where would he rank? If I recall correctly he was in the midseason top 20 so I would have to imagine he’d still crack the top 50 somewhere.

    • I don’t think Kyle is considered a prospect anymore?

      Not sure….

    • Yeah, his service time is probably way over by now. He probably would’ve had it just from the time he was active, but if he was on the MLB injury list, I would think he would still continue to accrue service time.

      • Tim does not use service time to restrict someone from eligibility he goes strictly by playing time meaning 130 AB or 50 IP. That is how Jordy Mercer was included in last year’s book. Kyle McPherson only has 26 big league innings.

        Besides he still qualifies as a rookie anyway:

        Determining rookie status:
        A player shall be considered a rookie unless, during a previous season or seasons, he has (a) exceeded 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the Major Leagues; or (b) accumulated more than 45 days on the active roster of a Major League club or clubs during the period of 25-player limit (excluding time in the military service and time on the disabled list).

        He officially has 70 service days but his time on the disabled list this year doesn’t count nor does the time he spent on the roster last September. The only days that actually count against his rookie/prospect time are August 20, 2012 and August 31, 2012. So he is still 43 days, 24 IP or I suppose 125 AB shy of losing prospect eligibility.

    • McPherson would have been in the book if he was in the organization at the time. In the early rankings he was rated around #25. I’m not sure where he would have ended up in the final rankings, but I feel he would have remained in the top 30. I still think he’s got a good arm and good upside. I don’t know if he’ll have the upside as a mid-rotation starter anymore, but I still view him as a future MLB starter.

  • Yep, even watching from Australia, there is so much to be excited and enthusiastic about, how totally refreshing!!!! And it is all about Pirates Prospects becoming major-league Pirates, and having the discipline and patience to re-build the organisation from the ground up. It will be awesome to see the outfield patrolled by Marte, Cutch and Polanco, they have not had that kind of talent since the Great One! And is there any one player in all of baseball that you would rather have than Cutch for all-around talent and character? And that list does not even include El Toro, who has shown more raw power than any player the Pirates have had since Wilver Dornel Stargell!!! And pitching talent and make-up that this team has rarely seen – Cole already looks like an ace in the making with an absolute bulldog/linebacker mentality, with Liriano still here, Morton extended and more solid than he gets credit for, and arms like Taillon, Kingham, Glasnow and Hereida on the way…it goes on and on!!! And maybe maybe AJ will sign up for one more season, who knows (maybe not even AJ!) YAHOOO!!! The results are unknown but the talent base is there for the Pirates to compete for the foreseeable future. Hard to understand all the complaining this off-season about the Pirates not upgrading the team – Polanco and Taillon are a better and more realistic upgrade for this club than anything on the free agent market, even if we have to wait until mid-June. You just have to wonder who people think the Pirates should have signed – Cano? Ellsbury? Choo? Peralta (none of the above!!!) Why would they want to be paying in the out years of those ludicrous contracts? Yep, 1b may be a question mark but don’t they owe it to themselves to at least see if Lambo is legit and can play the position? I wouldn’t trade Wilson or Watson for Ike Davis if I were running the club, that is for sure!! There is going to be some great and dramatic baseball at PNC over the next few years, and I for one cannot wait!!!! This club is the biggest Christmas present any baseball fan could ask for!!!

    • R 21: Disagree wholeheartedly with trading the LHP’s for any one of the “selection” of first basemen who have already been replaced on their existing teams. If we wait, the market for them will cool – Milwaukee did not even make a pitch to keep Corey Hart, so who are we competing with for these guys? Going into the off-season there were very few teams looking for a 1B and Seattle and TB have already dropped out. You want to trade talent and pay $4 mil+ for Ike Davis? My favorite and probably the most reasonably priced is Mitch Moreland, but I tend to favor former SEC Players, because I know the caliber of competition faced.

      BTW, what part of Australia? The reason I ask is that my son played for a team called the USA Ambassadors back in the early 90’s and after forming at Doyle Baseball in Florida, they traveled to LA and then to Adelaide to play in an international friendship tournament. He was there about 2 weeks and absolutely loved it.

      • I’m pretty sure he said, “I wouldn’t trade Wilson or Watson for Ike Davis if I were running the club, that is for sure!!”

  • Tim, any chance that Marte gets signed to an extension any time soon? In addition to a Marte extension I was wondering if you thought that a Longoria type deal (his first deal ie before they accomplish ANYTHING) would be a possibility for NH and Polanco to discuss. When considering WWTRD this popped into my mind. NH hasn’t done this type of deal yet but with Polanco seemingly ready now it could be the perfect time to strike a deal a few games into the season. I would love to know your thoughts on this. Thanks.

    • I was thinking the same thing about Polanco and Longoria. He originally signed for $150,000, so he might be open to his first payday early, even if it’s a discounted rate. He’s also less of a risk than most young players, and has a huge upside, so an early long term deal could be very beneficial.

      I’d also extend Marte, but it wouldn’t be bad if they waited one more year on him. He does come with a bit more risk since he gets hit in the hand constantly with pitches.

      • And he’s more of a risk because his approach isn’t as patient as Polanco or McCutchen.

  • Tim: Gregory Polanco had his breakthrough year in Lo A last year and has continued to impress at every stop since then. His game is well beyond anything projected in 2011, and the Pirates will have the most talented Outfield in baseball very soon. It is a recognition of the talents the Pirates scouting department and FO have found and developed over the past 6 years. Knowing the direction taken by the Pirates in the past years, The Pirates start a 10 game homestand June 26, 2014 and I fully expect that Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco will join the Pirates at PNC for that homestand and beyond.

    The achievements of Andrew McCutchen led the way in 2013 and his selection as the NL MVP was well deserved. What was mostly hidden was the 4.6 WAR of Starling Marte, and also the fact that the Pirates had 5 guys (‘Cutch, Marte, Martin, Alvarez, and Walker) in the Top 100 in that category. Marte is a 5 tool player but flies under the radar somewhat due to the K/W ratio, and the fact that he was injured the last month of the season. He is already an awesome package at the plate and is just starting to learn the plate discipline needed. Polanco has that in his repertoire already and these three guys are going to be in the Top 6 of the batting order for a long time. I hope the Pirates take the lead from some of the other teams who have brought talent to the majors and have signed them long-term very early. A good time to do that with Marte would be NOW, and an extension to ‘Cutch would be a bright move on the part of our FO. I also think it would be the right time to wrap up Walker long term.

    The Rotation will have strong candidates for the next 5 or 6 years at least. Gerrit Cole is here, Jameson Taillon is very close, and Nick Kingham, IMO, will be in the Rotation before the end of 2014. That will still leave Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton, and others to fill out the Rotation before the next round of Top Pitching Prospects start to get close – Tyler Glasnow, Luis Heredia, and a number of others. I also like Pimental, and Kyle McPherson, but somewhere along the line, we are going to have to use some of the talent to bring in talent at positions where we may be weak. I do not see any problems in 2014 regardless of whether we score a first baseman or not, but there are only so many spots available in the Rotation and BP. An interesting thought is Justin Wilson – are the Pirates going to put him in the Rotation, or keep him in the BP. That kid is an absolute bulldog out on the mound. Yes, it is a great time to be Pirate Fans.

    • No, not Walker. The Buccos certainly have the pitching to swing a trade that could net them a shortstop who both fields AND hits, and Mercer could take over second base.

  • This IS all very exciting to think about. The brightest spot to me is STILL going to be the pitching staff. For all the talk this winter about Polanco (no doubt deserved and yes, very exciting), I am more interested in Taillon joining Cole then waiting on Glasnow, Pimentel, Kingham and Heredia. THAT is extremely exciting also.
    It looks a whole lot like The Pirates could have the best outfield AND the best pitching staff for many season in a row.
    Its a great time to be a Pirates fan. The next 5 seasons should be epic. Thanks FO.

  • Imagine what this team looks like the next few years if on top of this outfield Mercer, Sanchez, and Lambo (at 1B vs RHP) actually pan out… probably asking too much for all 3 to work out but hey I can dream, right?

  • Timbo,

    LLOYD received the Prospect Guide in the mail today………thank you sir!!!!
    Looking forward to reading it on Christamas day since it is already wrapped and is LLOYD’s gift to himself.

    Congrats to Mr. Polanco!!

    LLOYD would love to see the Buccos playoff lineup be:

    1. Polanco
    2. Marte
    3. Cutch
    4. El Toro
    5. Gaby/Ike or Smoak
    6. PRNW (moves down to 8th vs lefty’s)
    7. Marteen (moves up to 6th vs lefty’s)
    8. Mercer (moves up to 7th vs lefty’s)
    —of course Barmes gets AB’s for both MI’s.

    Thank You,


    ps…………yessir, very possible these here Buccos have the best outfield in baseball for a few years runnin