2016 Pirate Position Preview: The Outfield

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As we finish the 2016 Pittsburgh Pirate position groups here at Rum Bunter, we take a look at the position group that is arguably the Pirates strongest – the outfield.

The Pirate outfield is anchored by arguably the National League’s second best player behind Bryce Harper in Andrew McCutchen. The five-time All-Star, four-time Silver Slugger Award winner, 2012 Gold Glover winner, and 2013 National League MVP is as dangerous of a hitter as anyone in baseball.

The 29-year-old superstar has quickly risen to become one of the most well-known, respected, and feared players in the game. Last season McCutchen slashed .292/.401/.488/.889 with a .380 wOBA, 146 wRC+, and a WAR of 5.8. Since debuting in 2009 Andrew McCutchen has posted a WAR of 40.3, which is second best in all of baseball behind just Miguel Cabrera (40.8).

One of the big contributing factors to the rise of the Pirates in recent seasons has been the addition of Starling Marte. The 2015 Gold Glove winner has posted 13.8 WAR since debuting in July of 2012, and is already arguably the best defensive left fielder in baseball.

Last season Marte led the National League with 15 outfield assists. Also, his 24 defensive runs saved was the third best total in all of Major League Baseball. And second among all Major League behind only Kevin Kiermaier of the Tampa Bay Rays. Marte has always been a great defensive player, and probably should have won a Gold Glove before last season.

Marte has also begun to really blossom at the plate in recent years. Last season Marte slashed .287/.337/.444/.781 with a .337 wOBA, 117 wRC+, and a career high 19 home runs. Marte also swiped 30 bags for the second consecutive season, and this comes after stealing 41 in 2014.

Another big jump Marte made last year was cutting back on strikeouts. Marte had a career low 19.4% strikeout rate last season. Marte also played in a career high 153 games last season, and avoided the DL for the first time in his career.

Oct 2, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates left fielder Starling Marte (6) hits a two run game winning walk-off home run against the Cincinnati Reds during the twelfth inningat PNC Park. The Pirates won 6-4 in twelve innings. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 2, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates left fielder Starling Marte (6) hits a two run game winning walk-off home run against the Cincinnati Reds during the twelfth inningat PNC Park. The Pirates won 6-4 in twelve innings. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

This season I look for Marte to record his first career 20 home run season and really start to tap into his true potential. There is no reason Marte can not be a perennial 20/30, or even 20/40 player, and I believe 2016 is the season we start to see that from Marte.

There are very few players in baseball that possess the skill set of Starling Marte. Marte has elite speed, arguably the best arm in baseball, can hit for power, and is beginning to hit for average as well. Marte is proving to be a true five tool player. I believe that this is the season that Marte makes the jump from star to superstar.

The third member of the Pirate outfield is Gregory Polanco, another player with a lot of untapped potential. Last year was Polanco’s first full Major League season and he slashed .256/.320/.381/.701 with a wOBA of .304, a wRC+ of 94, and a 2.2 WAR.

While overall Polanco was just an average hitter last season, he was a totally different hitter in the second half of the season. From July 12 through the end of the season Polanco slashed .287/.331/.430/.761 with a .329 wOBA and a wRC+ of 111. Polanco also posted a strong ISO (.148) in the second half of the season as his power began to develop more.

Even though a lot of Pirate fans think Polanco’s defense sucks due to his sometimes interesting outfield routes and a his game ending error against the Cubs at Wrigley last May, Polanco is actually a very strong defensive player.

His 13 outfield assists last season were the third most in the National League, and he ranked 20th overall in the Majors, 9th among outfielders, with 11 defensive runs saved. In fact, Marte and Polanco were the only teammates in the Major Leagues last season to rank in the top 10 at their position in DRS.

There will be a lot of pressure on Gregory Polanco to begin to produce more offensively in 2016, especially since he is the Pirates only real left-handed power threat. Even though Polanco only has 16 career home run, he has the potential to be a perennial 20+ home run guy.

Polanco is a massive human being, who added even more weight and strength this past offseason. While I do not expect Polanco to hit 20+ home runs this season, I do believe he’ll hit at least 15 and really start to take off with his power in 2017.

Polanco, like Starling Marte, possesses a rare skill set. He has a rocket launcher attached to his left shoulder, he brings excellent speed (he stole 27 bases last season) thanks in large part to his long strides, he is a patient hitter (his career 8.8% walk rate is above league average), and he should begin to develop more power.

Even if Polanco’s offense does not improve that much over last season, he is still a very good player to have around due to his defense and speed. That was evident in his 2.2 WAR last season.

The final element that will make the Pirates’ outfield so strong in 2016 is its depth. Willy Garcia will begin the year at AAA, but could easily be a fourth outfielder at the Major League level this season. Garcia has a very strong-arm and can hit for power.

There is also Jason Rogers who can play the corner outfield spots, and will most likely start the year at AAA, who is an offensive threat. In 169 plate appearances with the Brewers last season Rogers slashed .296/.367/.441/.808, a .354 wOBA, and a 121 wRC+. Between inevitable injuries and players not performing, I expect to see a lot of Jason Rogers this season.

The fourth outfielder to begin the season will be left-handed hitter Matt Joyce who the Pirates signed to a Minor League deal on the eve of Spring Training. Joyce has a lifetime slash line 0f .242./.335/.426/.761, and a 112 wRC+.

Mar 14, 2016; Fort Myers, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates left fielder Matt Joyce (67) works out prior to the game against the Boston Red Sox at JetBlue Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 14, 2016; Fort Myers, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates left fielder Matt Joyce (67) works out prior to the game against the Boston Red Sox at JetBlue Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Although Joyce really struggled with the Angels last season, he has always hit right-handed pitching very well in his career. Joyce has a lifetime .795 OPS, .194 ISO, .345 wOBA, and 121 wRC+ against right-handed pitching. While I am skeptical if Joyce has anything left in the tank or not, on paper he seems like a good left-handed bench option. Joyce has also had a very strong spring posting an OPS of .931 with three home runs.

Finally, the Pirates also have super utility man Sean Rodrgiuez on the bench who can play the corner outfield spots. Michael Morse has spent a lot of time in right field in his MLB career, and has played a lot of right field this spring. There is also utility man Jake Goebbert at AAA (lifetime .283/.370/.452/.823 MiLB slash line) as a corner outfield option.

In 2016 the Pirates could very easily have the best outfield in baseball. Last season their three starting outfielders combined to post a WAR of 11.7, and that should be even higher in 2016. If Starling Marte can continue to strike out less and see his home run total rise into the 20s and Gregory Polanco continues to make the same strides he did in the second half last season, then the Pirates 2016 outfield will be a very special group.

2016 Pittsburgh Pirates Position Group Previews