3-17-23 – By Michael Castrignano – @412DoublePlay on Twitter
There comes a time in the course of a rebuild where prospects need to put up or shut up. Many Pirates fans, myself included, have long beat the drum of the forthcoming youth movement pushing this team into contention once more.
Well, those players are here – or close to it – and a long list of candidates are vying for playing time; looking to prove they should be part of that starting nine for when this team is playing meaningful games in the fall. A deluge of those prospects currently have ‘OF’ listed as one of their positions so let’s start by looking at current options who could spend time in the grass at PNC Park this season and beyond:
Tier 1: Starters/4th Outfielder
Bryan Reynolds, Jack Suwinski, Andrew McCutchen, Connor Joe, Travis Swaggerty
There’s some obvious names here but let’s quickly talk through them. Bryan Reynolds, as of today, March 17th, is a Pirate. He likely will be a Pirate for the foreseeable future. I don’t get into the speculation of him potentially being traded and expect he will be starting in either center or left field on Opening Day. Emotions may not be his thing but hitting most definitely is. Even with a “down year” last season, he still posted a 125 wRC+ with a 2.9 WAR and career-best 27 home runs. His defense regressed considerably in center but his bat more than makes up for it. And if he’s moved back to left – which is where he started with the Bucs in 2019 – he should be at least average there defensively.
Suwinski had an intriguing rookie season (19 home runs in 372 plate appearances) but he struck out 30.6% of the time and his home/away splits were almost comical in difference (.982 OPS at home vs. .395 away from Pittsburgh). He also struggled against left-handed pitching, which is not uncommon for a young lefty. He changed up his stance this off-season with a more open and upright approach, seemingly hoping to find more consistency at the plate. He has a strong arm, good glove and is playing some center field this spring. It remains to be seen how this will play out in the season away from the warm winds of Bradenton as he is trudging the vast terrain of PNC Park.
Cutch being back is wonderful. There is no disputing that. What is debatable is how much he plays in the outfield. His initial impression was that he will primarily DH. The team insisted that he would be a corner outfielder. For what it’s worth, he played 53 games in the outfield last season with Milwaukee and 82 games at DH; however, the previous season in Philly, he spent 135 out of 136 games in left field. He’s not a plus defender by any means, but he can hold his own out there. Right field is the likely spot for him in Pittsburgh with some DH as well. He’s still very good against LHP (.738 OPS over 145 at-bats in 2022) so play him in those instances, sprinkle in occasional starts outside of that, help him have a fun return to Pittsburgh and maybe reach a few career milestones. He is 52 hits from 2,000, 8 doubles from 400 and 13 home runs from 300. It won’t break any records when it happens, but it’ll be fun to see it happen in a Pirates uniform.
When the Pirates traded Nick Garcia to Colorado to bring Connor Joe back to the organization, it made sense. Team needed outfield options at the time. It’s become less needed with the addition of Cutch but there’s a lot more that Joe brings to the team. He has a career walk rate of 11.8%, which should be a boost to all-or-nothing aspects of the lineup. He’s had a good amount of at-bats this spring and has shown some speed with a couple stolen bases. Most likely, he’s a platoon-type player as he’s performed better against lefties than righties (.759 OPS vs LHP/.715 vs RHP), likely sliding in for Suwinski against tough lefties.
If there’s one guy who seemed most on-the-bubble this off-season and stayed on the 40-man, it’s former 1st rounder Travis Swaggerty. And if you’ve seen him play at all this spring, you would be baffled that it was ever a discussion among fans. Craig Toth wrote about his development recently. As of this writing, Swaggerty has a .391/.417/.652 triple slash so far this spring with two home runs. He is hitting the ball with conviction, he’s capable of gold glove-level defense in center field and has above-average speed which will play on the bases. And, given the injuries and personal issues he’s had to deal with over the years, he’s a really easy guy to root for to succeed.
Tier 2: Next Man Up
Canaan Smith-Njigba, Ji-hwan Bae, Cal Mitchell, Tucupita Marcano, Mark Mathias, Ryan Vilade
This 40-man roster is LOADED with outfielders! All of them have experience playing outfield in MLB but who can take the next step to become an everyday guy?
Smith-Njigba is one of the guys I am highest on. He has untapped power potential, which we have seen show up a bit this spring with two balls hit out of the park (one of which counting for a home run). His plate discipline is extremely advanced for his age and experience level. A fun fact about CSN is his minor league triple slash almost exactly mirrors that of Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo’s minor league numbers – CSN: .276/.387/.414 vs Nimmo: .277/.387/.414. Does that mean his career trajectory is assured? Obviously not. But if you want an interesting comp who has been successful in the pros, this is a pretty cool one.
Bae has a few positional options for playing time with the Bucs. He’s been strictly playing middle infield this spring but played 6 of his 10 games at the end of last season in Pittsburgh in the outfield. He’s a speedy player who had a strong stint with 11 hits in 33 at-bats while also going 3-for-3 on stolen base attempts. He hasn’t hit for a ton of power in the minors (16 home runs across 1,203 MiLB at-bats) but he can use his speed to bunt for hits, steal bases and be a general menace on the base paths. Defensively, he has been iffy in the infield so it’s very possible they start giving him more reps out in center, where his speed can be put to better use.
If there were a 2nd DH spot or a back-up DH of some sort, maybe Mitchell fits in there. His bat can play. He had some struggles at the plate early on last season but looked much better down the stretch. Exit velo was up. Walks were up. Strikeouts were down. All positives for a guy who has hit at every level coming up through the system. The big knock on him is that he is not a great defensive outfielder. His arm is well below average and he looks very uncomfortable in the field. If the offense continues to develop, more power shows up and maybe he walks a bit more, I could see him being more serviceable as a DH but the bat could play for a corner outfielder, even if that’s all that will play.
Tucupita Marcano was the headliner of the 2021 trade with the Padres, which sent Adam Frazier to San Diego and also brought Suwinski to Pittsburgh. Marcano is a great example for why you don’t promote players to the major leagues before they’re ready. Padres had him debut in April 2021 when he was only 21, after he missed all of the 2020 season due to Covid and had only logged 925 plate appearances of professional ball up to that point. His numbers in the minors have been promising. His performance in the majors, maybe less so. That said, he is extremely athletic and everyone whom I have talked to with contacts within the organization has said that the team is still very high on him. They expect that the skill set is going to play, either in the infield or outfield. There will be growing pains and things won’t click all at once (if they click at all) but if they do, there’s a lot of talent which could potentially be unlocked.
A recent acquisition from the Rangers, Mathias has some positional flexibility, mostly bouncing around the infield, but he could be an option in the outfield as well. His offensive potential is surprisingly good for a spring training DFA. He only played 46 total games in MLB across two seasons but has a respectable .769 OPS (including an .825 OPS in 2022 with 6 home runs over just 30 games). He has some strikeout issues but this is partially a result from long at-bats as his pitches/plate appearance of 4.299 is well above average. For reference: Max Muncy of the Dodgers had the highest P/PA for all qualified hitters in 2022 with 4.31. Mathias? 4.44. Now, this is a small sample size but his minor league numbers of 3.937 across over 2,100 plate appearances is also very impressive. Guys who see more pitches at the dish have become somewhat of the modus operandi for Cherington as of late, and Mathias is definitely in a league of his own in that regard.
Vilade has been a name that casual fans probably still don’t know and whom yinzers have been waiting/calling for to be cut from the 40-man since the day he was added. Picked up off waivers from Colorado, Vilade has already been optioned after a disappointing spring, where he batted .167 over 19 plate appearances. He has a very advanced feel at the plate (12.1% walk rate vs. 16% K rate in AAA in 2022) but it’s an uphill battle if he can’t make other parts work. He doesn’t hit for a ton of power and his defense isn’t outstanding. If he doesn’t find a way to hit more, he’ll definitely be hitting less for this organization.
Tier 3: Who’s On Deck?
Matt Gorski, Chavez Young, Josh Palacios, Miguel Andujar
Gorski was rising quickly last season before some injury issues derailed his momentum. He has some strikeout problems, yes, but he managed to notch 23 home runs and 20 stolen bases in only 307 plate appearances across 3 levels in 2022. This was heavily boosted by Greensboro, granted, but he’s an exciting guy to watch. He was Rule 5 eligible this off-season and wasn’t selected but that’s more likely due to injury concerns than merit. A full season at Indianapolis will be a big test for him and finding out how legit the bat really is.
Young was acquired as part of the Zach Thompson trade with Toronto this past off-season. The switch-hitter didn’t really generate much ink when he came over but, in seeing him in Bradenton, and more recently on the bigger stage as an outfielder for Great Britain in the World Baseball Classic (.856 OPS), he’s been fun to watch. The bat is middling but he has excellent speed, a strong arm and tracks the ball well in the field. He likely ends up in a 4th OF role with potential for more if he can push some of that extra power.
Taken in the 2nd round of the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft, Palacios has some major league experience, having played for both the Blue Jays and Nationals. He has struggled at the top level (posting a .499 OPS over 82 at-bats) but had a solid season at AAA in 2022, sporting an .818 OPS with 21 stolen bases across 296 at-bats with 35 walks to 55 strikeouts. Above average speed and a strong arm makes him a decent depth piece, even if that’s all we see from him.
Andujar burst into the league in a big way in 2018, finishing second for AL Rookie of the Year, voting beyond Shohei Ohtani, while establishing himself as a potential cornerstone in a strong Yankees lineup. That 2018 season was the high point of his career as injuries and inconsistency has led to him being designated first from the Yankees last year and then from the Pirates this off-season following the McCutchen signing. He still has some pop – mostly in the form of doubles – and provides a veteran depth option in Indy to start the season.
Tier 4: A Little Ways Down the Road
Lolo Sanchez, Matt Frazier, Sammy Siani, Hudson Head, Connor Scott,
We’ve seen glimpses this spring for some of these guys. Lolo hit a big home run right before he was sent to minor league camp. Frazier had a break-out year in 2021 before slumping last season; however, he has looked good this spring with two hits in five plate appearances to-date. Siani was a top draft pick a few years back out of high school and, despite some struggles in the minors, has some good tools and is still only 22. Head and Scott each came over in trades the past few seasons and have some upside in their own rights, despite some inconsistency last year.
This is a big group of players, and it isn’t even including Endy Rodriguez – who could potentially be used in outfield – or names like Chris Owings and Drew Maggi, who are more likely to play infield but certainly have the capability to man outfield spots.
The hope is that some of these players push the envelope and we get a few standouts. It’s put up or shut up time and there’s a lot of players who could be making a lot of noise very, very soon.
2 thoughts on “Pirates Options in the Outfield”
Potential/ might as well keep the tryout wheel keep rolling till they find qualified players
Great overview. I feel as though many people overlook the OBP for CSN, which I am so glad you expounded on. I expect more of him too
LikeLiked by 1 person