12-14-21 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter
The Pirates have more questions than answers as we wait for 2022 to start, but I think when looking position by position you start to see some conversations change from last year to the next. I’m going to spend some time this offseason really digging in on who’s here, who’s in the top portion of the system, and who could be available from outside the organization for different positions. Today, as the headline would suggest, we’ll be discussing the outfield.
I should also add in here, spare me your comments like “if there’s a 2022 season”, first of all, it’s highly unlikely either side has the stomach to miss an entire season of games, and until I’m proven wrong, I’ll operate under the assumption things will work themselves out. I don’t need to be right on this, I just don’t care to spend 20 minutes finding a creative way to remind you baseball is in a lock out every time I sit down to write. As news and rumors start to creep out, I’ll address the situation directly and adjust if needed based on the process developing.
Ok, so the Pirates have a bad situation in the outfield overall, I don’t think that’s a shock, but it’s better than last season.
To illustrate this, I think we really need to revisit where we were come Spring in 2021. The Pirates had Bryan Reynolds, planted firmly as the left fielder where team executives felt he would be a gold glove candidate. Gregory Polanco who at best needed to be viewed as a prayer to provide anything positive to the cause. Brian Goodwin who was signed to a minor league contract with a player executable out clause. Dustin Fowler who was picked up late in the process and I’d argue directly caused Goodwin to not make the roster. Anthony Alford who looked decent in 2020 before breaking his arm making a catch and came into 2021 as the presumed center fielder. Troy Stokes who was picked up as a waiver claim and finally you get to the two real prospects, Jared Oliva and Travis Swaggerty. Oliva was injured in Spring and Swaggerty shortly thereafter.
Take a moment and really think about how clear it was, even then, that this team was in trouble from the outset in this position.
To me, Fowler was a mistake. It cost the Pirates having Brian Goodwin who isn’t great but at least could handle the position and had a track record of being a Major League hitter. It would take the Pirates damn near half a season and a gauntlet of failed attempts to finally land on Ben Gamel.
Now that was last season, and while I don’t enjoy looking back on arguably the messiest position on the team, I do think there are lessons to be learned and I believe it really illustrates how different the setup for 2022 will be.
On the Active Roster
Heading into 2022 the Pirates have Bryan Reynolds at Center Field, and at this point that’s fine. He likes playing there and until there is someone more physically capable of playing there and his bat matters enough to make sure he’ll play a lot, why mess with that? I still believe Reynolds is a Gold Glove caliber corner outfielder, not to say he isn’t a good center fielder but ideally someone with a bit more range would find his way there at some point.
They still have Ben Gamel, and he’s really someone I’d love to see be the fourth outfielder, but he’ll absolutely start on this club. That in and of itself says there is still much work to do. He’ll make some outstanding plays, but his defensive metrics aren’t quite what you’d think based on the incredible efforts he has put on tape. Look, he’s a good player, he also isn’t a starter on a good team.
Another familiar name here is Anthony Alford. He’s fast. He looks like he could run through a brick wall if that’s what it took to get the job done. Problem is he can’t use his speed effectively to steal bases, just can’t figure out how to get a proper jump, and I’m sorry, at 27 years old, ain’t nobody teaching him how. In reality he’s probably just about to the age where slowing down a bit starts to happen. He’s a great defender, has power, but simply can’t stop striking out and it goes without saying but that too prevents him from adequately utilizing his speed. He’s in the running to start one of the corner spots, because, well, you’ll see.
Greg Allen was claimed by the Pirates from the New York Yankees. The Yankees always have players like this (you may remember Hoy Park), because unlike teams such as Pittsburgh, guys like Allen are seen as not good enough to compete in the now, so they go buy MLB players and effectively block him unless he is touched by the mighty hand of the lord and starts looking like a late bloomer, he was always destined to run out of time. As Pirates fans we love to assume guys like this are a product of what I just described and opportunity will lead to hopefully finding free talent, unrealized by the impatient Yankees. I’d argue it doesn’t work out that way often, but I can’t sit here and tell you it never works, so taking a shot isn’t the worst idea.
On the 40-man
Now this is really the difference this year, the Pirates have a nice group of prospects who could factor in this season, something that we saw last season really matters. Especially since 3 of the guys we’ll discuss have had injury issues.
Jared Oliva is a guy quite frankly I was surprised survived the 40-man purge. The Pirates were not pleased with his approach at the plate last Spring and sent him along with Cole Tucker to train independently in Bradenton rather early, it was at this training site that Jared would fall to injury. A nasty, nagging injury to his oblique that prevented him from competing the program the Pirates outlined for him. He would earn a call up due to a glut of injuries but the Pirates were still not happy with his at bats and he would quickly find his way back to AAA seemingly to fade into the background. Probably as a direct result to his 2021, Oliva has played Winter ball in the Dominican this season and to date has performed relatively below the line, especially considering he’s playing in a league where his age differential as compared to competition is -3.7. He’ll still get a look in Spring, but unless something really clicks, I don’t see him as much more than a good defensive substitute.
Next up is our old friend Travis Swaggerty who feels like he’s been around forever but in reality was drafted in 2018. By now you all know how his journey has played out, played ok in Single A, worked at the alternate training site in 2020, lost all but 12 games to a nasty shoulder injury in 2021 after skipping AA and being assigned to AAA Indianapolis. He’s a premium defender, in fact if his bad dictates it he’s every bit the guy who could eventually force Reynolds to slide over, but he’s going to have to prove it first as moving a star doesn’t come off the cuff. Now here’s the poop, Swags has never hit like a first round pick. His glove as I mentioned is more than ready, but he has a long way to go to prove the bat is special, in fact he has some work to do to prove it’s replacement level. Bottom line, I see no way, no matter how he looks in Spring that he makes the club from the jump. He’s just not played enough, and even when he has he hasn’t shown enough. I didn’t even discuss just how catastrophic the shoulder injury was, but suffice to say, he has to prove he’s structurally sound too, we all saw what a nasty shoulder injury did to Gregory Polanco both in the field and at the plate. In fact most of the buzz around Travis is from the word of scouts who watched him perform at the alternate training site in 2020, so I think it should be fairly obvious the Pirates will need to see it in AAA a bit before he gets a crack.
Jack Suwinski was acquired from the Padres in the Adam Frasier deal at the deadline last year. I’d say his addition to the 40-man was a bit of a surprise but I’d also say it wasn’t a stretch. The 23 year old has not yet played in AAA but had a solid 2021 between Altoona and San Antonio where he saw power emerge in the form of 19 homeruns and 17 doubles with an OPS of .868. Defensively he’s above average and if the power remains he’s got the look of a future asset, thing is he will absolutely have to play some AAA before being a factor. He’s unique in that his 2019 made him look like exactly what most 15th round picks turn into, a guy who could field the position but couldn’t support it with the bat. San Diego promoted him to AA anyway and to his credit he took a jump forward.
Canaan Smith-Njigba is the final member of the 40-man I’d like to highlight here, he was acquired from the Yankees in the offseason for Jameson Taillon and hadn’t played since 2019 where he performed quite well hitting .307 with 11 homeruns, but losing 2020 was a hit for many prospects and you never know how a guy will respond until you see it. Canaan picked up right where he left off after joining Altoona but suffered some injury issues that prevented him from playing a complete season. His OPS of .805 earned him a trip at the end of the season to AAA and ultimately a spot on the 40-man. Of all the outfield prospects to me this 22 year old is the best of the bunch and has the best shot to contribute to the big club in 2022, but he too needs to do some work in AAA.
Guys Who Could Move to the Outfield
If the Pirates are hell bent on filling the role internally, they have some options they could look to, and while I ultimately don’t care for many of them as a solution, in the short term we could see someone get a shot there if for no other reason than 7 guys can’t play second base.
First up let’s talk about Hoy Park, another of those Yankees squeeze outs we talked about who looked ok at best in his time with the Pirates last season. He’s a versatile fielder and that might contribute to his chances to make the club. If he hits for power the way he did in AAA before being acquired his bat might actually make him a viable outfield option, but to me he’s a last resort out there, he’s much more suited to the infield.
Many have suggested Oneil Cruz move to right field, and I won’t tell you that should be off the table, but I will say it can’t be something they try to do to an important prospect like this at the major league level. I think he’ll start in AAA regardless, but if he makes the club, it’ll be at short stop, and they aren’t likely to Cole Tucker the kid, his bat is just too important, even if I ultimately feel that’s where he’ll wind up.
Speaking of Tucker, they’ve already tried him out there, and while I hold out room that they’re lying, they claim to like what they’ve seen. I think he looks like an athletic guy making up for bad jumps and creating issues for Bryan Reynolds with his indecisiveness to take charge on balls hit in his direction. That said I can’t deny they probably see him as an option out there.
Michael Chavis has played outfield, primarily left field with Boston but he’s almost universally seen as a better option at first base or second base. His bat will tell the story, if he’s a backup for Yoshi and that’s all his stick warrants so be it, if they’d like to see his bat in the lineup at the same time as Tsutsugo more often he’ll have to find another position.
Yup, I have to mention Yoshi too. He reportedly made it clear when negotiating his contract that he wanted to play first base, now, I doubt that’s iron clad but at least to start I’d imagine he’ll get his request fulfilled. He didn’t look good in the outfield but did improve as the season went on so potentially he works his way back out there but to me he’d have to be better than Chavis out there and vice versa or they’re just creating a hole where there wasn’t one.
Rule 5 Options
Now, I wouldn’t get too excited here, especially since the reason I’m bothering to look into these options is the fact our own prospects aren’t exactly three swings away themselves, but to be as well rounded as possible I think we need to see what’s out there and at least consider it.
The most interesting player I see is Carlos Rincon from the Mets organization. He’s 24 and last year hit 22 homeruns and while he doesn’t walk enough, he doesn’t strike out at an alarming rate either.
Griffin Conine (son of Jeff the longtime MLB veteran) from the Marlins, is a legit power threat hitting 36 splitting time between High A and AA in 2021, the average suffered but his track record has been solid and his OBP still clocked in at .330 with an OPS of .860.
One more here and it’s a Dodger product, Ryan Noda. He’s a 25 year old left hander who can play first base and corner outfield. He played 113 games in Double A last year and belted 29 dingers. For his career he sits at .411 OBA, which says to me he’s at least worth a shot.
Free Agents (Realistic)
Well, I wanted him last year and nothing changed my mind, Joc Pederson. C’mon, you saw what he did for Atlanta. I just can’t get the visions of him destroying the Clemente Wall out of my head. Take a swing for 10 mil here and let the kids beat Gamel to make the show.
Alex Dickerson is another interesting guy, he’s not an upper echelon type but he’ll probably command somewhere in the 8-10 million range. The only issue I have with either of the first two I mentioned is I think they should really look for a right handed bat, so long as they plan on Gamel being a starter.
OK so here’s my dream signing, Tommy Pham. Right handed, probably will want more than 10 but who knows how the market shakes out, I wouldn’t want to pay more than that but he fills that right handed need and sits right in the middle of the lineup where this team needs a bat most.
This team is in better shape this year in the outfield, but it’s not going to show itself in April. Reality is they have 5 or 6 guys who need work but at least they aren’t already near their expiration date.
Reynolds is a great anchor, Gamel is a good measuring stick, and I give any of the guys on the 40 a shot at winning the job as the third and fourth, but if the team really wants to put pressure on the veterans and practice patience with the youngsters I’d recommend bringing in a vet, and not another Gamel, needs to be a step better than that. If not, don’t bother.