For quite a few years, 13 to 14 by my estimation, there has always been a clear heir apparent who would tasked with the duty of patrolling centerfield at aaa for the Pittsburgh Pirates. As Chris Duffy, and at times Rajai Davis, were taking turns trying to hold down the middle of the outfield in the Pirates lineup, a young Andrew McCutchen was busy tearing up the fields of the South Atlantic, Eastern and Independent Leagues. It was undeniable that McCutchen was poised to take on the position and do so with skill, energy and ease for years to come; which is exactly what he did for the next 9 years. During his 8th year there were rumblings that the new kid on the block, Starling Marte, was more than ready to slide over to take his place and do so seamlessly.
After McCutchen was traded to the San Francisco Giant during the off-season prior to the 2018 season, the path and decision were straightforward; Marte was the Pirates full time Centerfielder and would remain so for the next two years. Now with Marte having been traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks prior to the 2020 season, the Pirates were left with a clear hole in their lineup/roster. New General Manager Ben Cherington was quick to fill this void with veteran free agent Centerfielder, Jarrod Dyson; but even he had to be aware that he was only putting a Band-Aid on the situation, until he and his team could come up with a long term solution.
With a shortened Spring Training and a season currently on hold, there hasn’t been much time for GMBC and the rest of the Baseball Operations to work toward finding out the answer to the question of the future centerfielder. However, there are plenty of contenders and many Pittsburgh Pirates fans have already planted their flags in the camps of their favorite potential candidates because Jarrod Dyson is only a placeholder. This list is fairly short, but everyone is extremely passionate about their opinions, so it only makes sense to look at each player. So here they are, in no particular order.
1) Bryan Reynolds
Even prior to the end of the season there were trade rumors swirling around Starling Marte, which only intensified as the off-season progressed. This led many to wonder if the surprising rookie phenom could just slide over and take Marte’s place in the event of a trade. I even tackled this topic in article at my former site. Based on my own research and that of others it was discovered that Reynolds had some pretty decent fielding numbers in left field for the Pirates last season. For the season he posted a 0 rARM, a 0 rPM, a -3.5 UZR, a 3 DRS and a 2 OAA. All of these numbers were superior to Marte’s aside from the arm strength, which made many propose that he did not have the arm necessary to play center field on a regular basis. We all know he has the offensive numbers to justify his spot in the lineup or at least he did last year. He led the team in batting average (.314), and OBP (.377), as well as being near the top in wRC+ (131) and SLG (.503). However, does he fit in as the man in the middle long term for the Pirates?
2) Jared Oliva
Currently the Pirates #9 Prospect according to MLB Pipeline and an All-Star in both the Eastern and Arizona Fall League’s last year, a lot has been made of his consistent hitting and presence on the base paths. This praise is well deserved and completely justified as he hit .277, with 36 extra base hits and 36 stolen bases this past season in Altoona. With his speed and athleticism, it should be no surprise that his defense is on par with the rest of his game. In three seasons and 2081 innings in centerfield he only has one error, which would account for his .998 fielding percentage. It should also be noted that his RF/9 of 2.54 would rank near the top 10 of MLB active centerfielders.
3) Travis Swaggerty
When I read prospect articles, blogs and fans posts, Swaggerty’s name is the one I see mentioned the most often as the heir apparent to the centerfield position. As the Pirates #6 Prospect and 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft 1st Round Pick, selected at tenth overall, this should come as no surprise. This past season, at only 21 years of age, he performed fairly well both at the plate and in the field. However, his .265 batting average and .728 OPS was a little bit of a disappointment. It was nice to see him display some of the power he had shown in his time at South Alabama, as he he 9 homers and 32 extra base hits. As the Bradenton Marauders everyday centerfielder he had a .991 fielding percentage and a 2.83 RF/9.
4) Oneil Cruz
This is a little bit of out of the box thinking as Cruz is currently a shortstop in the Pirates Minor Leagues, who has been mentioned as a right fielder due to his arm strength. However, throwing to first from a middle infield position and launching a ball from the outfield are two totally different motions and it is hard to determine how this would translate. We all know the raw power (60 grade) and hit tool (50 grade) potential is there and should eventually equal success in AA, AAA and MLB, but at which position. His fielding (50 grade) ability, athleticism and speed (55 grade) allow people to speculate even further about his future slot in the Pirates lineup.
5) Jason Martin
Coming into the 2019 season, Martin was seen by many as the next man up in the outfield for the Pirates. He got the first shot of any of the prospects in the minors when he was called up to the majors on April 5th. He came out hot in his first four games, accumulating 5 hits in 4 games. Ultimately he would cool off and ended up being sent back down to the AAA Indianapolis Indians on April 30th when Starling Marte returned from the IL. He returned to the Pirates briefly at the end of June, but only got one at bat. His next appearance would be his last as his shoulder was dislocated sliding into home plate on September 3rd in a game against the Marlins. He would eventually undergo surgery on his shoulder in October. After an intensive rehab he came into Spring Training ready to compete for a spot on the opening day roster. As Spring Training was cut short he was optioned back down to AAA on March 20th.
6) Lolo Sanchez
Lolo is currently ranked as the Pirates #20 Prospect according to MLB Pipeline. After dominating the South Atlantic League as a member of the Greensboro Grasshoppers, he was promoted to the High A/Advanced Bradenton Marauders half way through the 2019 season. He struggled with this promotion as he average plummeted from .301 to .196 and he only hit one homer in 52 games after crushing 4 to begin the season. He also did not get much time in centerfield as #6 Prospect Travis Swaggerty already had a firm grip on that position. Due to his poor play in Bradenton and obviously having several players in front of him, the road to PNC Park is not as clear for this young man, but it is not outside the realm of possibilities.
7) Jonah Davis
Over the past two seasons in the Pirates Farm System, after being selected in the 15th Round of the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft out of the University of California-Berkeley, Davis has consistently displayed the power he was drafted for by hitting 31 home runs. This past season in Low A Greensboro Davis took over centerfield on a regular basis after Lolo was promoted. He is a solid defender, with decent range, that projects as a corner or 4th outfielder in the majors. However, the potential is there to be a consistent contributor at the major league level and the chance of him playing centerfield for the Pirates on a regular basis should not be ruled out.
As we all know the 2020 MLB Season is currently in jeopardy. If baseball does end up being played this summer and fall, Jarrod Dyson is almost certain to be used as the placeholder in centerfield. There could also be an opportunity for other players to emerge depending on how Rob Manfred and the powers that be choose to proceed as multiple double headers have been discussed as an possibility. If the season is ultimately canceled Dyson could potentially move on, having never played a single game in a Pirates uniform. This would leave GM Ben Cherington in the same position as he was prior to signing Dyson in the offseason, with no clear replacement for Starling Marte in centerfield.