Prior to the start of the season General Manager Ben Cherington signed free agent veteran Jarrod Dyson to patrol centerfield at PNC Park for the Pittsburgh Pirates. From the beginning it was clear that this move was being made as a stopgap until the future player for this position was ready for the role. It was also seen as a probability that the team would move on from him prior to the end of year via trade or DFA, so that player may need to be identified sooner rather than later. When the season finally got underway the Pirates had identified former top shortstop Cole Tucker as a possible option, allowing him to roam the outfield first in an exhibition game and now for 17 games thus far in the regular season, 7 times as the team’s centerfielder. However, it has not been made clear that he is the long term answer for the Pirates, so they will need to keep their options open.
When I spoke with Garett Mansfield, Director of Communications and Play-By-Player for the Altoona, this past weekend a couple of these options became apparent as the conversation progressed. It all started when I asked him about the position players whose performances had been sticking out so far at the alternate site in Altoona. Almost immediately he jumped into talking about Jason Martin and Jared Oliva. He expressed the fact that Martin was itching to get back to the Pirates and looked to be performing at a higher level than many of the other players that were there. He went on to speak about Olivia’s overall ability and effort at length, including how he had robbed a couple of homers and hits from batters.
Jason Martin was originally drafted by the Houston Astros in the 8th Round of the 2013 MLB June Amateur Draft out of Orange County Lutheran High School in California. Acquired in the infamous Gerrit Cole Trade with Houston, Martin arrived in the Pirates’ System in January of 2018 and was assigned to the Altoona Curve to begin the season. This past year Martin was called up from AAA-Indianapolis twice, but he barely had a chance to do more than get his feet wet before Starling Marte returned from injury and then he was injured himself toward the end of the season. In 40 major league plate appearances he posted a .250/.325/.631 slash line, but showed some promise with a .346 BAbip (Batting Average on Balls In Play). Martin’s minor league career has been very encouraging at times; especially up through at least the middle of the 2018 season when he was promoted from AA-Altoona to AAA-Indianapolis. Prior to this promotion he had been hitting .325, with a .522 OPS and 9 HRs in 68 games. That same year he was listed as high as the Pirates #13 Prospect on the MLB Pipeline Top 30 and was listed as the Pirates #18 Prospect this past year, so it seems that something is still there. Martin may be the victim of unforeseen circumstances including his own injuries and uncertainty, although I would say that Martin looked pretty healthy at the original Spring Training in Bradenton, legging out a triple in one of 24 at bats.
To begin the 2020 season Martin was added to the expanded 30 man roster, but was eventually optioned to the alternate site after the opening series when Gregory Polanco was activated from the 10-Day/COVID IL having not taken a single at bat.
Oliva on the other hand is currently the Pirates #10 Prospect on the MLB Pipeline Top 30. After being drafted by Pittsburgh in the 7th Round of the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft out of the University of Arizona, he has always been a consistent and solid ball player. The times that I have seen him play in Bradenton for the Marauders or in Altoona for the Curve, I always know what to expect, 110% effort all of the time.
Whether it is in the batter’s box, in the field or on the base paths, you it has always been the same. However, in the beginning of the 2019 season Oliva was struggling. Through the first two months hitting only .206, with a .603 OPS, 2 HRS and 3 extra base hits. Then Oliva literally turned the page. For the next two months he was on an absolute force. His average over June and July was .342, his OPS ballooned to .923, and he had 4 HRs and 23 extra base hits. Toward the end of the season he cooled down a bit, but had already earned himself an invitation to the Arizona Fall League to play for the Peoria Javelinas, as well as the MVP award for the Altoona Curve.
After arriving in Peoria, he maintained the same mindset he has always had and continued to impress. He was one of the best hitters in the league and earned a spot in the Fall Star game. For the season he posted a .312/.413/.473 slash line, with 13 extra base hits. A huge strength throughout Olivia’s minor league career has been his speed, as he has stolen 87 bases across three levels and 36 alone last year in AA. Oliva’s impressive year was capped off as he was invited to Pirates Spring Training as a Non-Roster Invitee on January 20 of this year and was ultimately added to the player pool in Altoona once baseball resumed in late July. He was also rewarded for his hard work in Altoona with a spot on the 3 man Taxi Squad on a Pirates recent road trip.
It is not certain that either Jason Martin or Jared Oliva will get their shot in centerfield this season, but if they do it will clearly be earned. And with Jarrod Dyson sure to be gone next year, the Pirates will have at least a few more options to consider when trying to figure out who to play in front of the bushes at PNC in 2021.