Article By: Jim Falbo | @BuccoSharkTank
For my first series of articles I will do a brief position by position analysis of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Barring trade or injury, the 2014 Pirates will carry the same four outfielders on Opening Day that they carried in 2013. Starling Marte will man PNC Park’s spacious left field pasture. 2014 NL MVP and Pirates franchise player Andrew McCutchen will return as the center fielder. Jose Tabata and Travis Snider are both out of options, and will platoon in right field.
Starling Marte provided the 2013 Pirates with a much needed spark at the top of the lineup. His season line of .280/.343/.441, 12 HR, 41 SB, and a 121 wRC+ sparked the team to their first playoff appearance since 1992. His 41 SB ranked 3rd in the NL, and he likely would have finished 1st if not for his late season injury. A natural center-fielder, Marte rates as a very strong defensive outfielder, with great range, a plus throwing arm, and was nominated as a finalist for the Rawlings Gold Glove. In fact most scouts grade Marte as a better defensive center-fielder than incumbent superstar Andre McCutchen. Marte’s strong overall season was worth 4.6 fWAR, 9th best among all MLB outfielders.
Going forward, Marte must prioritize working on his plate discipline. Marte’s 4.4% walk rate was the 12th lowest among the 140 batters who qualified for the batting title. Combine his low walk rate with the the coaching staff emphasizing that he reduce being hit by pitches, his 24 HBP last season was 2nd in the NL, and his OBP is in real danger of falling. Another red flag on Marte is his .363 BABIP, 8th highest in baseball among qualified hitter. With his speed Marte will likely have a higher than average BABIP (MLB average was .297 in 2013), but last year’s number is unsustainably high. When regressing Marte’s 2013 numbers to a more realistic .330 BABIP, I found that he became a .257 hitter. Although free swinging will always be a part of his game, Marte can remedy the potential for reduced production by becoming more selective at the dish. Just remember, the Pirates once before had a free swinging, strong armed outfielder, who retired with a high .343 BABIP. Roberto Clemente turned out to be pretty good.
It’s also worth noting that Marte led the NL with 15 CS, but his 73.2 CS% was a tick above the MLB average of 72.8%, so it’s not as if Marte was a poor base stealer. If Marte can improve on reading a pitcher’s moves to consistently get a great jump, his speed could make him one of baseball’s most lethal base stealer.
Andrew McCutchen, is there anything else that really needs said? The reigning NL MVP added his 2nd Silver Slugger in 2013, and rated near the top of too many leader boards to mention. Cutch finished the season with a batting line of .317/.404/.508, 21 HR, and a 155 wRC+. Cutch also rated 2nd in MLB with a 8.2 fWAR, finishing behind the Angel’s Mike Trout (10.4 fWAR). Cutch’s game saw improvements defensively, as he posted the highest defensive metrics of his career in 2013. He also reduced his strikeout rate to 15% down from 18.6% and 19.6% over the past two seasons. I could laud Cutch all day with praises, but I’ll refrain and put it simply: Cutch is an elite player, in the prime of his career performing at a Hall of Fame level. Pay close attention to him, you may someday tell you children and grandchildren that, “I saw Andrew McCutchen play.”
Jose Tabata and Travis Snider will begin the season as the RF platoon. Tabata put together a solid season in 2013 after injuries factored into his two previous disappointing seasons. Tabata batted .282./.342/.429, and a 118 wRC+. It’s hard to remember that Tabata is still just 26, and was a very promising prospect not very long ago. Tabata has put up similar splits during his career, so he is a viable option to start against LHP’s and RHP’s. If he can approach his 2013 numbers, expect to see Tabata to get most of the starts in RF. Tabata has shown a propensity to get hurt, so depth could play a factor in RF.
Snider began 2013 with a good April posting a .300/.392/.417 line, but it was all downhill from there. Snider struggled mightily the rest of the season, and ultimately missed time due to a serious toe injury. He finished with the miserable line of .215/.281/.333, 5 HR, and a 70 wRC+. It was assumed that Snider would be non-tendered this offseason, but the Pirates believed that last year’s struggles were attributed to his toe injury. Because he is out of options, and was tendered a contract, expect to see him on the opening day roster and get some starts against against RHP’s.
Jaff Decker is a former top 100 prospect, who was acquired from San Diego in the Alex Dickerson trade. His best attribute is his ability to get on base as evidenced by his career minor league .402 OBP. He shows occasional power, is not considered a strong defensive outfielder but has played CF, and struggles against LHP’s. He could see time in Pittsburgh as a 4th OF if Tabata/Snider struggle with injury or performance. He has 2 options remains and will likely start in Indianapolis.
Chris Dickerson is an speedy athletic outfielder, who is a plus defender with a strong arm. In 708 PA over 6 seasons, Dickerson has proven to be a league average hitter, posting a line of .262/.339/.406, 15 HR, 32 SB, and a 99 wRC+. He has struggled to hit LHP’s throughout his career and has never really secured a MLB starting job. Dickerson could get called up if there is an OF issue in Pittsburgh. Until then, Dickerson will start his season in Indianapolis.
Andrew Lambo would be part of the RF situation if a the Pirates acquire another first baseman. Check out my analysis on him here: http://buzzntheburgh.com/2014-
Gregory Polanco will not start the season as Pittsburgh’s RF under any circumstance. He will begin the season in Indianapolis, where he will need to prove he’s adjusted to upper level pitching. Perhaps most importantly, the Pirates don’t want to trade a year of control during Polanco’s prime, for an extra month and a half of his rookie year by having him on the Opening Day roster. If he’s adjusted to AAA, look for him to bring his 5-tool talents to PNC Park after the estimated date for Super 2 status has passed. By making sure Polanco does not attain Super 2 status, it pushes back his eligibility to file for arbitration by one year. When he’s finally up, the Pirates could boast the best outfield in the Major Leagues.
*The WAR shown in this chart is Fangraphs WAR (fWAR) and is calculated slightly differently than Baseball Reference WAR