Way back before the 2020 season started, the Pirates and their new management team, looked to start the process of breaking down the team, and restocking the system.
Starling Marte was the move and the return from Arizona has a real chance to be special, but it also created a real problem for the Pirates, it left the club with only one nailed on starting quality outfielder, Bryan Reynolds of course.
It’s the pain of a rebuild. Same pain that the starting rotation is enduring. Believe it or not though, the Pirates were in better position to withstand the effort in the rotation. Players like Mitch Keller, JT Brubaker, and real prospects that could step in soon like Miguel Yajure and even Wil Crowe.
The outfield has not been so fortunate, in fact the only significant outfield prospect brought back in any of the flurry of moves was Hudson Head in the Joe Musgrove deal. He’s a terrifically talented player with a ton of upside, but he’s also nowhere near impacting the Major League Club.
So this forced the Pirates to, um, get creative. They tried Anthony Alford, Dustin Fowler and now Ka’ai Tom. All three are players who did well, were top prospects at one time and never really got the shot with their club. All three were low risk shots at finding an answer for right now in the outfield.
Now, saying they were forced to go this way clearly isn’t true. They could have easily invested even a little money into the position but the lure of finding a diamond in the rough who could be an answer now and for the next few seasons was more appealing to this office.
Brian Goodwin was a veteran brought in to offer some professionalism, but a poor Spring and lack of options on Fowler and Alford didn’t allow him to be an option.
When the time came to pull the plug on Alford and Fowler, Goodwin still didn’t earn the promotion. Leaving the club with 2 actual outfielders on the club, one being Gregory Polanco so you could make the argument that number is one.
Now, we haven’t seen Ka’ai Tom do anything yet. He could shock us all and really be a piece, but history tells you for every Phillip Evans, who himself is returning to the mean a bit, there are 15 Anthony Alford types.
In other words, while I hope to be pleasantly surprised, I also don’t expect to be. I mean the entire premise of the Back to the Future movie series was essentially about how difficult it is to catch lightning in a bottle.
So who is close? Well, prospect wise you’re lookin gat Jared Oliva who is now injured and inactive for at least a month. He has talent, but the club wants to see more power, and I don’t mean they want to turn a single hitter into a 4 hole thumper, I mean they just want to help some gap power emerge so he can use his speed more to push the action.
Next up is Travis Swaggerty, former number one pick, super fast, great defender. He’s also never played above High A and just because he would have played AA last season, doesn’t mean he did the work at the alternate site last year. By all accounts he impressed, even had some experts talking about him making the league this season, but let’s be honest, that comes from shear desperation. He needs time and that’s if you believe time will actually develop him, I mean he’s a career .257 hitter in the minors.
The bottom line, the Pirates don’t have a ton of answers in the system for the outfield and even dreams of seeing Oneil Cruz patrolling RF took a hit with his miserable Spring and offseason in general.
This lack of prospect capital is part of the reason the team needed to tear down in the first place, but it certainly isn’t getting better.
We already touched on Polanco, he’s probably playing his last season as a Pirate, and it will leave Bryan Reynolds on an island as the only experienced outfielder on the club.
Couple things here, first, if this club wants to make that window count, I think they have to do all they can to extend Reynolds. The outfield needs stability, and they need someone who isn’t a hope. They need someone who is a safe bet and the way Reynolds plays ball and the consistency of his approach would be a perfect anchor.
Even if you believe Swaggerty will be ready for 2022, which he certainly could be, it takes more than two. At some point either through actual capital investment or potentially even as part of a baseball trade, this team needs to get some outfield depth that’s closer to the bigs.
I could just as easily titled this piece “why they won’t cut Polanco even if you’re sick of him” because all the roster gymnastics I referenced tell you something very important, there isn’t anybody else. Not right now, and not soon. The chance that Polanco will stumble and bumble his way into 15-20 homeruns and likely finish second on the team in that stat coupled with the fact he is literally one of two qualified outfielders on the 26-man roster is the entire story.
Be irritated with him, be irritated with the team if you like, but it won’t change the reality.
Personally, I think the club could have fairly cheaply bolstered this position and given themselves a real shot at finding help for a couple seasons my taking a swing at a David Dahl type or even a Jackie Bradly Jr.
The payroll is low enough that it wouldn’t have hurt anything and they might have just paid a little for that bridge to Swaggerty.
The club has weak spots in the system, its far better than it was just 18 months ago but in some areas literally nothing has been advanced measurably.
Two names to watch, because if they evolve the outfield will have a really nice facelift on the outlook are Cal Mitchell and newly acquired Canaan Smith-Njigba. Again, they aren’t close, but they both have high ceilings and power.
Expect this position to remain an issue until such a time as they decide it’s worth more than a flyer on players who might help. Even if Tom does well, it won’t answer all the questions this team needs to answer as they continue to build.