The Pirates Won’t Have to Wait For Gregory Polanco to Have a Top Outfield

The 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates season begins on Monday when the Pirates take on the Cubs. To prepare for the start of the year, I’ll be previewing all of the position groups on the Opening Day roster. Here are the previews we have so far.

The Pirates Rotation Has Some Red Flags, But Still Projects to Carry the Team

The Pirates Won’t Have to Wait For Gregory Polanco to Have a Top Outfield – READING

Pirates Will Once Again Have Strong Infield Defense and Offensive Questions

The Pirates are Returning a Bullpen That Was One of the Best in Baseball

The Pirates Have a Bench That Can’t Hit Right-Handers

The Pirates had one of the best outfields in baseball last year, combining for a 13.1 WAR, which ranked third in baseball, and was the best group in the National League. A big reason for this was Andrew McCutchen, who won the MVP award and had an 8.2 WAR. Starling Marte’s 4.6 WAR also helped. Both players will be returning this year, and at their ages, it’s possible that they could continue that production, and possibly improve. That means the Pirates will probably once again have one of the top outfields in the league.

Travis Snider and Jose Tabata didn’t put up the best results as starters throughout the year. Tabata had a strong finish to the season, but missed some time with an injury. Snider had a horrible season, and missed a lot of time with a toe injury. The Pirates will go with both players in right field again this year. The difference is that they have top prospect Gregory Polanco set to arrive in June. That means if Tabata and Snider are struggling, the Pirates won’t have to wait until the end of August to replace them. And once Polanco arrives, the Pirates could be on their way to having the best outfield in the game.

Andrew McCutchen was the NL MVP last year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Andrew McCutchen was the NL MVP last year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Andrew McCutchen

In 2012, Andrew McCutchen had a breakout season, posting a 6.7 WAR. The big concern heading into the 2013 season was that McCutchen wouldn’t be able to reach those levels once again, making it hard for the Pirates to be competitive. Instead, he exceeded that production, posting an 8.2 WAR in 2013.

McCutchen actually saw a decline with his overall offensive numbers. He had a .327/.400/.553 line in 2012, and a .317/.404/.508 line in 2013. His average dropped a bit, and his power saw a decline to his 2011 numbers. To make up for this, McCutchen saw massive increases in his defensive value, and saw an increase in his base running.

It’s hard to say where McCutchen’s game will go from here. Will his power bounce back to the 2012 levels, or remain like the 2013 levels? His .190 ISO in 2013 was more in line with his career .193 mark, compared to the .226 he put up in 2012.

Will the defense continue at 2013 levels? He had an 8.4 UZR/150 last year, compared to a -8.6 UZR/150 in 2012. In his career he has a -2.8 UZR/150, although he’s had positive numbers in two of the last three years.

The projections all have McCutchen as a 6-7 win player. I think that’s a good conservative approach to take. At the same time, it’s possible that McCutchen either maintains his 2013 production, or improves on that value once again, which could come by keeping the defensive value and returning the offense to 2012 totals.

Steamer: 6.2 WAR

Oliver: 6.8 WAR

ZiPS: 6.0 WAR

Starling Marte Pirates
The Pirates just signed Marte to a six year extension. (Photo credit: David Hague)

Starling Marte

The Pirates just signed Marte to a six-year extension with two option years. In total, the deal buys out control of three of his free agent years. This comes after his first full season in the majors, where he had a 4.6 WAR. In 2012 he had a 1.1 WAR in the final two months of the year, which is about a 3.3 WAR season over a full year. So it’s not out of the question that Marte could repeat his 2013 value, or improve on those numbers in his second full year in the majors. If that happens, then the Pirates would have extended him at the right time.

Marte gets a lot of his value from his speed and defense. He was worth 7.2 runs above average running the bases last year, and 4.9 runs above average defensively. The defensive rating is actually adjusted down since he plays left field, which is traditionally less demanding defensively. However, PNC Park’s left field plays like center field, so Marte’s true defensive value is probably greater than the advanced metrics give him credit for. His UZR/150 of 20.1 was the best in baseball among left fielders.

Marte had a .280 average last year, which came with a .363 BABIP. That’s a high number, but it’s not unusual for him. He had a .344 in Triple-A, a .390 in Double-A, and a .424 in High-A. Marte has a high BABIP because of his speed, and his ability to bunt for a single, or reach base on infield singles. Last year Marte ranked second in baseball in bunt hits with ten, and 9.9% of his balls in play were infield hits, which ranked 11th in baseball.

The power numbers were good, with a .161 ISO, and there’s room for improvement as he gets older. The biggest concern is his lack of walks. Marte has a 4.4% walk rate in his career so far, and with his approach at the plate, that doesn’t project to go up. Marte ranked in the top 30 in baseball last year in swing percentage out of the strike zone. He’s not going to draw a lot of walks, although that was off-set last year by him getting hit by a lot of pitches. That has been a trend in his career, which should continue going forward, and should help to elevate his OBP.

The projections have Marte between a 3-4 win player. Considering he was closer to five wins above replacement last year, those projections seem low. It’s possible that Marte could exceed these projections, and exceed his 2013 value, as he gets more time and experience in the league. His defense and base running will be there, giving him a lot of value without even considering the bat.

Steamer: 3.0 WAR

Oliver: 3.8 WAR

ZiPS: 3.1 WAR

Travis Snider projects to get the bulk of the playing time in right field to start the year.
Travis Snider projects to get the bulk of the playing time in right field to start the year.

Travis Snider

The Pirates seem to be going with Snider as their primary right fielder to start the year. He has looked good in the limited time that I’ve seen him during Spring Training. I’ve also talked with a few scouts who remain high on him, despite the lack of success so far in the majors. The Pirates are obviously high on him, which led to them giving him $1.4 M this year, and one more shot in the majors before Gregory Polanco arrives.

There’s not much to say about Snider’s game to give any hope that he will be a good player in right field this year. You’re pretty much relying on projectable tools, and the hope that everything will finally click for him this year. The time is running out on the tools, and the time for him to put everything together in the majors is running out, since Polanco is on the way. The projection systems have him close to being a replacement level player, which seems like a safe bet.

Steamer: 0.3 WAR

Oliver: -0.1 WAR

ZiPS: 0.0 WAR

Jose Tabata had a strong finish to the 2013 season. Photo Credit: David Hague
Jose Tabata had a strong finish to the 2013 season. Photo Credit: David Hague

Jose Tabata

Tabata actually had a better season than Snider last year, looking good in the final two months of the season. He has been injury prone throughout his career, which is something you could say about Snider. He has also been inconsistent, although that’s an upgrade over Snider. If you ask me, Tabata should be the primary right fielder, with Snider serving as the backup. He has been better so far in his career, and the Pirates have more invested in him going forward. They’d be better off seeing if he can put things together this year before Polanco arrives.

Tabata was a 1.1 WAR player last year, after missing about two months of the season. He had a horrible year in 2012, but was an 0.8 WAR player in 2011 and a 1.9 WAR player in his rookie season in 2010. The projection systems have him close to a win and a half above replacement, which would be a decent starter and a great bench option when Polanco arrives.

I’d personally rather see what Tabata can do going forward, rather than giving Snider another shot. I’m not saying that there’s no chance Snider puts things together. I’m also not saying that Tabata will continue hitting like he did at the end of 2013, where he had an .848 OPS over the final two months of the season. But if you ask me who has the better chance of being productive before Polanco arrives, and valuable to the team after Polanco arrives, my answer would be Tabata in both cases.

Steamer: 1.4 WAR

Oliver: 1.4 WAR

ZiPS: 1.5 WAR

Gregory Polanco
Gregory Polanco is expected to arrive in Pittsburgh by mid-season.

Gregory Polanco

I’d list him with the depth options and the other guys that won’t open the season in Pittsburgh, but Polanco deserves his own section. He’s going to be up by mid-season this year, and he has the skills to have an immediate impact in the majors, much like Andrew McCutchen did during his rookie season. Eventually, Polanco projects to be an impact talent, although that might not happen in 2014.

When Polanco arrives, he’ll give the Pirates strong defense in right field, and a ton of speed on the bases. He’ll have a chance to turn a lot of walks and singles into doubles with his base stealing abilities. He’s got advanced plate patience, so he won’t deal with the low walk rates that Marte struggles with. He also makes good contact and projects to hit for average, with the ability to hit for power now, and more power projection in the future.

It’s hard to get a good projection for prospects who haven’t played in the majors. Surprisingly, Polanco gets good ratings from the projection systems — better than most prospects receive. These projections are based on an entire season of play, which he will not get. Polanco does have some work to do before he arrives in the majors, since he hasn’t seen much pitching above Double-A, and he’s seen about half a season’s worth of pitching above A-ball. He probably won’t need until mid-June, but by the time he’s ready, it will be in the Pirates’ best interest to wait a few weeks and avoid Super Two status. Once mid-June arrives, expect Polanco to arrive in Pittsburgh.

Steamer: 0.0 WAR

Oliver: 4.6 WAR

ZiPS: 2.9 WAR

The Depth

Polanco is the guy who will take over in the second half of the season in right field. If the Pirates need an outfielder prior to that, expect Jaff Decker to be that guy. Decker has the ability to play all three outfield positions, and has shown a good ability to get on base, while hitting for a decent amount of power in the minors.His upside is more of a fourth outfielder or a part-time starter. The Pirates would probably only need him off the bench, since he would fall fifth on the depth chart, and that’s before Polanco arrives.

Chris Dickerson is also a depth option who profiles as a bench player at best. Dickerson would see the majors if the Pirates lost two of their regular outfielders, which is certainly a possibility considering the injury history from Snider and Tabata, as well as Marte’s tendency to get hit with pitches, and McCutchen’s all out play.

  • ResistanceIsUseless
    March 31, 2014 1:12 pm

    It seems you’re referring to my comment.

    1: How am I hostile? Piratemike said Tabata’s “attitude has been widely reported”. I asked where these reports are. I don’t see how asking for something to back his statement is hostile.

    2: Yes, Tabata has had injuries, so has Snider. So do most players at some point in their careers. Sometimes the injuries come in bunches, as they seem to have for Tabata. Sometimes they get spread out over a career. Not to suggest that Tabata, Snider, or anyone else on the team compares favorably to Clemente, but if you read about Roberto (or remember him), you would know that there were numerous complaints about his injury history. That said, there could be something in the way Tabata trains or plays, or in his biological make up, that makes him more susceptible to injury; if that’s the case, he and the team should work to find that and address it.

    3: If Snider can actually hit and use that power, then he could indeed help the team more than Tabata. However, thus far in his career, especially with the Pirates, he has failed to do that for the most part.

    4: My comments about McCutchen were there to address the “best effort” attack on Tabata. Probably no player can give the same effort every game when he plays 6 or 7 games per week for 6 months. I didn’t really mean to disparage McCutchen, but chose him because he’s the MVP, the team’s best player and leader, and he seems to be above reproach for most fans. My point is that every player is going to have bad plays or days or even weeks. This could be from mental fatigue from grinding through the schedule, from distractions outside baseball, from overly worrying about his performance, or even from heckling from the fans. Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems to me that a rumor campaign got started against Tabata and I’ve never seen a good reason for it. That’s not to say I’ve never seen him make mistakes – sometimes bad ones – but some parts of it seem unjustified to me.

    • Knucklehead
      April 2, 2014 7:38 am

      I was referring to Ian Rothermund’s comment to PirateMike. I didn’t consider yours to be hostile.

  • Wish Pirates had a 25-man slot for Oakland’s Michael Taylor, but with team’s right-handed heavy outfield, don’t see it happening.

  • Monsoon Harvard
    March 30, 2014 11:51 am

    Tabata is a bum. He has NO LIFT IN HIS SWING. He consistently hits low line drives right at the fielders resulting in line-out double plays. It is so predictable where he is going to hit the ball that the opposing teams only need to stand where he always hits the ball and he is foiled.
    He has never changed. Anyone who has followed each game of his career knows this.

    His base running is crap as well. He frequently gets picked off and doesn’t move up when he should, and whatever speed he once had is long gone. He is singles hitter at best.

    The Pirates know what they are doing with Snider as the starter. At least Snider is a multi-faceted player compared to Tabata.

  • Ian Rothermund
    March 30, 2014 11:10 am

    What’s wrong with 62?

  • Ian Rothermund
    March 29, 2014 9:29 am

    I agree with the assessment on Tabata. I don’t understand why he hasn’t garnered more positive attention. Looking at his career stat lines, it could be argued that 2013 was his best season. Not the .299 batting average in his rookie year, but a solid .282, the highest OPS of his career (.771), he doesn’t strike out a lot, has decent speed, and plays relative good defense. He even has a higher career batting average against RHP than LHP by about 25 points. It makes no sense to play Snider over him, and will likely only make Tabata look like even worse of a player by keeping him out against RHP.

    • players force their way into the lineup by showing up everyday ready to play with a good attitude and by putting up good numbers.
      If you’re injured and mope around you have a career like Tabata.
      If he stays healthy and shows the manager that he wants to play and puts up good numbers he can have a starting job in the majors if not with the Pirates than with another team. It is up to him.

      • Ian Rothermund
        March 29, 2014 12:54 pm

        Oh, excuse me, how long have you been coaching with the Pirates? I want more insight into his clubhouse attitude. I’m just assuming that you’re a coach and therefore you have first hand experience of Tabata’s emotional shortcomings. Otherwise, you’d just be some guy making assumptions based off of what you see on the television.

        • meatygettingsaucy
          March 29, 2014 1:09 pm

          Come on Ian, you should know better than to use something as trivial as “stats” when trying to make your argument valid. If a player doesn’t show a ton of emotion, he is clearing just moping around.

        • You said you don’t understand why Tabata hasn’t garnered more attention. It doesn’t take a baseball expert to gather that there must be something other than numbers that keep Tabata from being the starting RF for the Pirates. His attitude has been widely reported but he also has to stay on the field.
          I have heard numerous times managers saying that the players make out the lineup. Obviously something is keeping Tabata from a starting role. You come up with a better reason.

          • ResistanceIsUseless
            March 29, 2014 11:47 pm

            Where are these reports about Tabata’s attitude? I’ve not seen anything but comments by people in threads like this, and that’s not what I consider authoritative.

            Apparently had a co-worker whose best skills were back stabbing, taking credit for others’ work, and buttering up the boss; however, because of these last couple, the boss thinks they’re great and promotes them. That’s not to say that’s what’s happening here (in fact, I don’t believe it is), but to point out there are situations where a manager’s perceptions may not be reality, but since the manager is the one who actually puts pencil to line up card, he is the one decides how the “players make out the lineup”. If his perceptions are off, then the wrong guy might pencil himself into the lineup.

            There’s no doubt that McCutchen is hard working, but remember when Hurdle benched him during his (Hurdle’s) first year? Or the time an inside-the-park home run was hit because Marte went for a catch but missed it and McCutchen wasn’t backing up the play? That wasn’t the first time I’d seen McCutchen fail to back up his fellow OF’s. Why doesn’t he get called out for his attitude?

            As for staying on the field: since the discussion is Snider vs. Tabata, you can make the argument that Snider hasn’t been able to stay on the field also.

  • I do not understand why MLB players union supports the Super 2 arbitration rule. It seems to me that star players lose a half year of MLB roster status and therefore a half year of MLB salary. I understand why the Pirates delay the arbitration clock of their top prospects. But, Gregory Polanco could be the starting right fielder for the Pirates now, it would be best for him, best for the Pirates, best for baseball and best for the Pirate fans.

    • It’s all about money. The possible chance to make millions more is worth the gamble of losing a couple of hundred thousands. I was thinking of not from an agent standpoint, if you had 10 clients and one of them made super 2, you probably would earn more money then if you had 10 clients earning 4 years of MLB minimum.

  • I will not soon forget the day that Marte was called up. Then to smack a dinger in that first AB. It was one of those moments over the past few years that makes you think, oh yea we’re back! Love this outfield, now and for the next half dozen years I plan to really enjoy and appreciate the talent that we’ll all get to watch lead this team and keep it competitive and exciting.