For years it has seemed that even before spring training begins in Bradenton the Pittsburgh Pirates outfield had been set; sometimes for better and other times for worse. Even back in 2011, we knew were going to see some version of Andrew McCutchen, Xavier Paul, Garrett “G.I.” Jones, and Jose Tabata roaming the outfield at PNC Park. Over the next few years green landscape on the field began to take an even clearer shape as the likes of Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco joined the established presence of McCutchen roving from fly ball to fly ball in centerfield. Even when McCutchen left, it was already known that Marte could handle the position and Corey Dickerson came into join the crew. Then last year the once reliable assumptions and assertions came crashing down, with injuries to Dickerson and the newly acquired and never deployed Lonnie Chisenhall. For the first time in many years the Pirates outfield was in chaos and it got even more hectic and frenzied when Erik Gonzalez and Starling Marte collided going for a ball hit in the 8 inning of a game versus the San Francisco Giants in mid-April.
For the next couple of weeks the outfield was shuffled between Jason Martin, Bryan Reynolds, J.B. Shuck, Melky Cabrera and Gregory Polanco freshly “recovered” from the injury that had ended his season early the year before. At the very end of April, Marte returned much to joy of Pirates fans and the outfield began to take shape again; Reynolds in left, Marte in center and Melky in right, with a sprinkling of Dickerson for a short period of time following the All-Star break. Toward the end of the season chaos reigned supreme again as Dickerson was traded, Martin injured himself scoring during his only appearance after June 23, and Marte injured himself diving for a fly ball in center on Sunday September 8 and was eventually “shut down” for the season after two pinch running appearances in the next two games. Finally came the off-season, but unfortunately the end of the season did not mean the end of the chaos.
From the day the Pittsburgh Pirates put down their balls, gloves and bats for the final time on Sunday September 29, the rumor mill began to swirl with first whisperings and then down right shouts of where the Pirates star center fielder would be traded. The Mets, Diamondbacks, Rangers, Padres, Yankees, Rays, Braves and even division rivals the Cincinnati Reds were alleged to be in the market for Marte’s services. For a while there I thought it was unavoidable. Then I thought it was never going to happen. Finally I became resigned to the fact that it was inevitable. In the end Starling Marte was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for two of their top 10 prospects, RHP Brennan Malone and SS Liover Peguero.
At this point the only known commodities in the Pirates outfield were Rookie of the Year vote-getter, Bryan Reynolds, the recently acquired Guillermo Heredia, Gregory Polanco and Jason Martin; the last two who were both recovering from injuries. Enter Jarrod Dyson, a “grizzled veteran” that is only here because there “ain’t too much out there right now." So the outfield is set now, right? Reynolds in left, Dyson in center and Polanco in right. But what do you do with Heredia and Martin? Who becomes the fourth outfielder? And how long will they be the fourth?
Currently it looks like it is going to be a battle between the aforementioned Guillermo Heredia and Jason Martin. However, others could join the mix; including Kevin Kramer (now listed as an OF, even though he continues to take warm-ups and participates in drills as a second basemen.) and Will Craig (blocked by Josh Bell and for the time being Jose Osuna at first base).
Heredia enters the season with a less than stellar offensive career to date. He has hit .240, with a .659 OPS and 17 HRs in his 4 seasons, split between two teams. His defense and position flexibility in the OF are his strong suits as he has posted a positive DRS (Defensive Runs, Saved), OAA (Outs Above Average) and UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) at both RF and LF for his career.
Jason Martin is unproven. Called up from AAA-Indianapolis twice last season, he barely had a chance to do more than get his feet wet before Marte returned from injury and then he was injured himself. In 40 major league plate appearances he posted a .250/.325/.631 slash line, but showed some promise with a .346 BAbip (Batting Average on Balls In Play). Martin’s minor league career has been very encouraging at times; especially up through at least the middle of the 2018 season when he was promoted from AA-Altoona to AAA-Indianapolis. Prior to this promotion he had been hitting .325, with a .522 OPS and 9 HRs in 68 games. That same year he was listed as high as the Pirates #13 Prospect on the MLB Pipeline Top 30, so it seems that the ability and potential is there.
The third “option” is Will Craig. Craig has steadily moved through the Pirates' farm system after being the drafted in the first round of the 2016 MLB June Amateur Draft out of Wake Forest University. Always known for his raw power, the converted first baseman finally unleashed his abilities with 20 HRs in AA-Altoona during the 2018 and 23 HRs in AAA-Indianapolis this past year. As previously mentioned, he is currently blocked by All-Star 1B Josh Bell at his position. So, last year he began to take RF reps for the first time in his professional career, logging 13 starts and over 100 innings at the position. He has a chance of entering the 2020 Pirates’ opening day roster, I am just not sure it is going to be as an outfielder, but there is always that chance.
The final contender for the fourth OF spot is another “wild card”/”long shot”, Kevin Kramer, he's a long-time utility infielder and minor league double-play partner with Pirates' short stop, Kevin Newman. As with Craig, Kramer, just began playing the OF last year. After exactly 30 games of experience in the minors, Kramer was thrust into the role in the last month of season with the Pirates due to the previously mentioned trades and injuries; appearing in 7 and starting 6 games in RF. The year prior he had played well for the Indianapolis Indians, earning a September call-up for his effort. During the 2019 season he had regressed from a .311 AVG to .260, a .492 SLG to .417 and a 141 wRC+ (weighted Runs Created Plus) to 92. He has also struggled severely on the offensive end during both of his call-ups; hitting a combined .152, with only 12 career hits and a -1.0 WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Currently listed as the Pirates’ “third string” second baseman on the official depth chart, it is not even that likely Kramer makes the opening day roster.
I guess for now it can be assumed that, barring any injuries and/or trades before opening day on March 26, Pirates' Fans will be seeing Reynolds, Dyson and Polanco patrolling the outfield at Tropicana Field against the Tampa Bay Rays. As far as the fourth outfielder, I guess we will just have to wait and see how the competition breaks down.
Let us know your thoughts. Who will be the Pirates' outfielders on opening day?
Follow Craig on Twitter: @BucsBasement