The best left fielder on the Pittsburgh Pirates is Starling Marte. We can pretty much all agree with that statement. In a perfect world, Marte would stay put in left and continue gunning down runners at the plate, as he twice did in Cincinnati – in the same ninth inning — a couple years back.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say left field is harder to play than center field at PNC Park. Perhaps the Pirates could try Marte in left at home and center on the road, but that kind of shuttling around isn’t the norm. I will say that with the prevailing prevalence of defensive shifts that there might be a better chance of Marte moving back and forth than there was three years ago.
Gregory Polanco came up through the Bucs’ system as a center fielder after signing as a pitcher. In the Futures game he played center. I remember him misjudging a fly ball and going “uh-oh.” Unfortunately, he’s never really settled into a plus outfielder. When he first came up it was purportedly because of not playing in two-deck stadiums before. He had troubles tracking the ball. As time has gone on, he just doesn’t seem to have great instincts. Bad knees and other injuries have compounded his defensive issues.
So where does that leave the only two players on Pittsburgh’s roster assured of starting somewhere in the outfield?
Marte will likely hold down the center field spot, even though a proactive arrangement might deploy him in the setup mentioned above. Polanco just needs to stay put, either in left field or right. He’d never played right field before the team moved him there several seasons ago and he made some nice plays in left. In the end, the Bucs need his offense more than his defense and it won’t really matter where he lines up if he doesn’t hit. Chances are he’ll be in right.
Under the likely scenario, therefore, the team needs to take a look at potential left fielders, from inside the organization and out.
Let’s start with the players under contract: Jordan Luplow, Adam Frazier, Jose Osuna, Sean Rodriguez, Josh Harrison, Austin Meadows and Daniel Nava.
Luplow’s got a strong arm but nothing about the rest of his defense stands out. If he starts in left it’s because of his offense and home run threat. The 24-year-old was aggressively promoted, but almost more out of need than numbers. I will say that just because he seemed to come out of nowhere, the third-round pick has always presented power within the system. With a career 191:270 BB:K ratio, Luplow has value as a fourth outfielder and a bat off the bench.
Things looked so promising for Frazier in Fenway Park during the opening series of 2017. Starting in left, he played the ball off the Green Monster masterfully like Carl Yastrzemski and looked ready to play regularly. His defense showed below average, however. It seemed he needed to be hid on the field, just to get his bat in the lineup. It was almost like manager Clint Hurdle and his staff wondered where could he do the least amount of defensive damage, given the starting pitcher’s ground ball/fly ball tendencies. And that’s a shame, because he’s got a better idea of what he’s doing at the plate than most MLB hitters, let alone Pirates. One would think that a player who came up at shortstop should be able to transition to second base or the outfield with relative ease, but that hasn’t been the case. Frazier doesn’t usually hit for power but he may be the team’s most professional hitter. If he plays left field regularly, he won’t be helping the Pirates pitching staff.
Jose Osuna has a cannon for an arm and little else. He threw out three baserunners in one game, but the more he played outfield the worse he looked. Osuna reminds me of a golf flag. If you hit it near the hole then he’s fine, but if you slice or hook then you are in for a long round. Osuna flat out can’t play left field at PNC Park. If Polanco slides over from right to left, then maybe Osuna could play right in spurts. After all, Matt Stairs did for a bit. The team had thoughts of trying the 25-year-old at third base, but with Colin Moran there, Osuna’s path to playing time will be dictated by injury.
Sean Rodriguez was entitled to a write-off year in 2017 after returning from a vehicle crash in the offseason. If his shoulder is sufficiently recovered then he’ll provide the Pirates with a strong defender wherever he lines up. He could play left field as part of a platoon, but not every day. His offense was anemic, but again, he gets a mulligan due to his traffic injuries. Rodriguez probably had his career year in 2016, but if the Bucs sign a left-handed free agent then “Sean Rod” could fit as a platoon partner. The team needs to see if he has physically bounced back in spring training.
Harrison spoke from the heart when he said that he wanted traded last month. He probably shouldn’t have said anything. With the stagnant trade and free agent markets, someone should have told Harrison to just stay the course. He’s been a good Pirates player and an even better personality, but he may have overplayed his hand. If he isn’t traded, Harrison will likely play second base. He arguably had his best season while moving around the infield and outfield in 2014. He would be a viable option in left but his skillset presents better as an infielder. Chances are he won’t be with the Pittsburgh organization long-term, anyhow, so he’s ultimately not the answer in left.
Far and away, the best long-term solution to the left field question is Austin Meadows, a healthy Austin Meadows. Other than an average throwing arm, he can do it all. The problem is he can’t stay on the field. Meadows was beginning to realize some of his first-round pick status potential when he went on a 30-plus game hit streak for Double-A Altoona in 2016. That run got him promoted to Triple-A, where he faced much older competition at 21. Last season was pretty much a washout, but he did manage 312 plate appearances at Indianapolis. One of general manager Neal Huntington’s developmental tenants is to get prospects as many at-bats in the high minors as possible before recall. Huntington lamented Pedro Alvarez’s total of 426 plate appearances for Triple-A Indianapolis. In retrospect, “El Toro’s” number of plate appearances at any level probably wouldn’t have changed the major-league numbers on the back of his baseball card. Anyhow, Meadows has the ability to spray the ball all over the field – remember the oppo dinger he hit in a spring training game last year – and has the highest upside of all possible left fielders. If the organization still believes in his long-term potential, then he might not be recalled until after the “Super-2” arbitration date passes in early June.
Recently signed Daniel Nava could provide filler at the big league level until Meadows comes up. The former independent league player spent parts of five seasons with the Red Sox. At age 34 last year, he batted .314 in 183 at-bats for the Phillies. Of course, in 2015 and 2016 he hit .194 and .223, respectively, for three different organizations.
The free agents market is dormant, which absolutely favors the Pirates chances of picking up a left field talent. Aside from the slumbering market, there’s probably little actual reason to predict the Bucs picking up an outside talent, but as prices drop, there may be more players available in the $2-4 million range. Remember, Russell Martin didn’t sign a two-year, $17 million-dollar deal with the Bucs because he liked PNC Park – he did it because that was the highest offer. Money is going to drive signings, even with the perception Pittsburgh has lost its luster trading away Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen, so anything’s still theoretically possible.
The team would likely have to pay full retail to get a player like Jarrod Dyson, but full retail in 2018 is significantly less than 2017.
One of the big names available is Carlos Gonzalez. “Cargo” has made over $78 million in his career, including $53 million in his last three seasons, alone. Perhaps he’d take a one-year deal to rebuild his value. But should the Pirates pursue him?
A look at his numbers reveals steep decline for the 32-year-old outfielder (who is older than Andrew McCutchen). Gonzalez struggles away from the high altitude of Colorado. For his career, he’s slashed .323/.383/.593 at home and .252/.308/.427 on the road. In 2017, the lefty hit just .202/.274/.332 in 241 at-bats outside of Colorado.
Gonzalez has always been fragile, but he’s averaged 146 games over the last three seasons.
From 2010-12, he went 16-for-45 with five homers and 12 RBI at PNC Park. Since then, he’s gone 7-for-45 with two homers and three RBI. This is a miniscule sample size, but it supports the much larger theme of an overall decline.
In the end, Gonzalez looks like an add for a team on the cusp of contending, a team looking for a left-handed hitting platoon partner. Is that the Pirates? It could be, but there are many other teams in the same situation.
The Grapefruit League starts in two weeks. The Bucs have a number of options for left field. In the end, the potential impact of strong seasons from Marte and Polanco go a long way toward minimizing the impact of the left field position, good or bad.
The Pirates could also pursue filling the need for a left fielder by trading Harrison, but the guess here is that a combination of Frazier, Rodriguez and Luplow plays left until Meadows arrives.