3-18-22 By Craig W. Toth (aka @BucsBasement On Twitter)
Over the past few seasons-as a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates-it seems like the majority of information being presented to us is simply a replay, or a recording of media sessions and interviews from the previous year(s). At times the names have changed, but for the most part the answers have remained the same; especially as it pertains to the positions that are spoken for across the dirt and grass at PNC Park come Opening Day.
Prior to the 2021 Season, Jacob Stallings was penciled in as the team’s backstop, Ke’Bryan Hayes would man the hot corner and Bryan Reynolds would patrol the outfield. At the time Reynolds was set to resume his role as the Pirates left fielder; but honestly, an argument could have been made for him to be in centerfield from the jump.
Then, just a few days ago, when Manager Derek Shelton was speaking to the Pirates beat reporters concerning filling in spots on the lineup card, he made the following statement:
“I would say third base and center field are pretty secure but we have competition in the outfield, competition in the middle of the diamond, there’s a ton of competition in our rotation and our bullpen.”
So, Hayes at third and Reynolds in center, with Roberto Perez added in because there really is no competition at the position; or more succinctly put, status quo across the board.
Sure, you could make an argument involving the potential prospects who are on the cusp of making an impact in Pittsburgh; however, until the do-on a consistent basis-it’s hard not to be disappointed by the lack of solutions when it comes to addressing nearly every position on the field for the future.
Subsequently, you might try to point out that the state of the outfield has improved from where it stood on April 1st of last year at Wrigley Field. On the surface, this assertion is not really something I can just balk at. In fact, it’s an element of the rebuild I would like to dive into a little bit more; both with present and future focus.
When the Pirates faced off against the Chicago Cubs to open up the 2021 Season the outfield from left to right was Reynolds, Anthony Alford and Gregory Polanco. As the season progressed we saw Dustin Fowler, Ildemaro Vargas, Troy Stokes, Jr., Phillip Evans, Ka’ai Tom, Jared Oliva and Wilmer Difo all get a shot at locking down a spot in the outfield; eventually landing on a steady dose of Ben Gamel in left, Reynolds in center and a rotation of bodies in right. Which is pretty much where we remain today.
Prior to the lockout being instituted on December 2nd, the Pirates took the opportunity to avoid arbitration with Gamel by signing him to a $1.8 million deal-plus $100K incentives for reaching 450 and 550 plate appearances; in essence cementing his spot in outfield to start 2022.
Now, Gamel is a fine choice if you are looking for a fourth outfielder, or even the third outfielder; presuming the third player in the outfield is putting up offensive and defensive numbers at least somewhat comparable to Reynolds. However, if he is your second best option, chances are the Pirates will continue to struggle.
On the season (aka his time in Pittsburgh), Gamel produced a slash line of .255/.352/.399, an OPS+ of 104 and a wRC+ of 101, while belting 8 homers and 28 total extra base hits in 383 plate appearances. On defense-and in spite of the appearance of better numbers due to some highlight reel grabs-he put up a -8 DRS and -9 OAA; good for a combined .1 WAR and 1.2 fWAR. Nevertheless, when you look at the revolving door from last year, as well as the potential competition to begin the season, a replacement level player-or a slightly above age one-becomes a lock for now; even if he isn’t the long term answer.
Enter Anthony Alford back into the conversation. After getting the Opening Day nod, the former consensus Top 100 prospect in all of baseball proceeded to bat .083 with 16 strikeouts in only 24 official at bats before being designated for assignment.
For the next three months Alford would spend his days as a member of the Indianapolis Indians, slashing .307/.420/.593 with 14 homers; ultimately earning his return to Pirates for the last two months of the season. Over 119 plate appearances he would post a .266 AVG with an .805 OPS and 5 home runs, yet he continued to strikeout at a rate of 35.3%, which clearly remains a major concern; hence the need Greg Allen.
Like Gamel and Alford, Allen found his way to the Pirates via a waiver wire claim. In 594 Major League at bats-across five seasons-he has batted .241 with a .655 OPS; spending 2018-19 as a fairly regular contributor for Cleveland Guardians. Most notably he was part of the Mike Clevinger trade to San Diego, where he logged one official at bat during the shortened 2020 season. Basically he’s another one of Ben Cherington’s dart throws.
Behind these three starts the groupings of prospects; from Travis Swaggerty, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Jack Suwinski and Cal Mitchell-along with Bligh Madris, Jared Olivia and/or Chris Sharpe as potential holdovers-to Matthew Fraizer and Lolo Sanchez, most likely leading the way for the Curve. Further down in the system, other prospects like Hudson Head, Sammy Siani, Jack Herman, Lonnie White, Jr., Rodolfo Nolasco and Shalin Polanco exist.
None of these are clear answers, just like Alford, Allen and Gamel are probably nothing more than place holders.
So yes, it’s possible to say that the outfield is better than it was a year ago. But, it’s also the same outfield that the Pirates ended the season with, which isn’t enough outside of Reynolds. And, although it doesn’t seem like he is going anywhere anytime soon based on reports from Dejan Kovacevic, I can’t imagine a winning team in Pittsburgh without a decent pair of bookends.
One man can’t go it alone.