Pittsburgh Pirates: High Expectations for the Outfield

Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

Editorial: The 2017 baseball season is officially one week away for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  With that, it is time to make some bold predictions on what to expect this season.

Last year the Pittsburgh Pirates had a down season compared to the previous three.  However, as 2017 approaches, there should be some optimism about what the Pittsburgh Pirates can accomplish this season.  Much of the success this season will likely come from the current outfield group.  The team’s offense will go as the Pittsburgh Pirates outfield does.

Starling Marte

It is safe to say that Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Starling Marte is the best all around one on the team.  Marte is starting to become a household name around the MLB as well.  This is mainly due to his abilities on the defensive side of things.  Over the winter it was announced he would replace Andrew McCutchen in centerfield. Although McCutchen struggled in center field last season, it is still a big time headline to see an established big league player being replaced by another. This put Marte on a national spotlight as McCutchen is one of the better-known players in the league. Marte is not only a far superior defender than McCutchen and most outfielders in baseball, he also possesses just about the best arm in the league.

Also, ZIPS projects Marte to be an above average hitter again this season.  Marte had a nice year in 2016, batting over .300 for the first time.  ZIPS expects Marte to hit for a .281/.336/.436 season with a solid .351 wOBA. Also, they project him to hit 14 home runs, which would be more than the previous season. When combining his defensive abilities with his ZIPS projections, there is no reason Marte should not be on the all-star team this summer.

Gregory Polanco

Polanco had a solid, but yet somewhat disappointing 2016 season.  During the first few months of the season, he hit .299/.377/.515 with a .373 wOBA, and 136 wRC+.  He also showed an improved eye at the plate posting an 11.9 percent walk rate. However, for as hot as he was through June, he became the complete opposite for the last half of the season.  Polanco only hit .216/.261/.409 with a .284 wOBA, and a 76 wRC+.  One could also see the struggles he was having at the plate simply by looking at his 5.8 percent walk rate in the second half of the season.  This was a quite a drop-off and shows that he was just not seeing the ball the way he did in the first half.  Still, Polanco showed progress from the year before.  He wrapped up 2016 with multiple career highs including 22 home runs, 86 RBIs, .786 OPS, .205 ISO, and 2.5 WAR.

Entering 2017, expectations should be high for the 25-year-old outfielder.  He is making the move to left field, which should give him a chance to show off his arm even more at PNC Park.  Polanco has wracked up 23 outfield assists since the 2015 season.  Also, there is a lot of optimism due to his performance this Spring.  Gregory Polanco put on an absolute clinic at the World Baseball Classic, batting a team-high .579 in five games for the Dominican Republic.

Unfortunately, ZiPS does not project much of an improvement this season for Polanco, having him hitting just .259/.322/.420 with a .326 wOBA.  Of course, being he is just 25, has shown improvements each season, and was one of the top players in the WBC, there is no reason that he cannot take the next step forward in 2017.  Polanco should push for a .280 to .290 batting average and hit 25+ home runs this season.

Andrew McCutchen

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Finally, there is Andrew McCutchen.  The player that was most talked about during the 2016 season, the 16′-17′ off-season, and most likely this season.  McCutchen seemed to be a different player during the 2016 season.  We heard numerous reasons as to why he was struggling, anywhere from nagging injuries, to him feeling like the strike zone was expanded for him.  Regardless, the Pittsburgh Pirates are a different team when the face of the franchise is hitting.   The team won 98 games in 2015, and a big reason was because McCutchen hit .292/.401/.480 and provided a 5.8 WAR.

Things changed in 2016 for the all-star.  McCutchen had a really slow start to the season in 2016. Even with a solid last two months, he could not get his numbers to his career line. For the season he posted a slash line of .256/.336/.430.  Furthermore, he posted career lows in wOBA (.329), and wRC+ (106).  His strikeout rate of 21.2 percent was a career high while he walked a career low of 10.2 percent. On top of that, McCutchen rated as one of the worst center fielders in baseball.  He ended last year posting a -23.2 UZR/150 (0 is average) and -28 defensive runs saved, both by far career worsts.

Now for the 2017 season, McCutchen looks to get a fresh start.  He is getting a new position in right field, which should help him all around.  McCutchen plays with a lot of passion, for as good as that can be, it can also be a negative.  A lot of the times when McCutchen would make a bad play in the field, you could see he would carry it over to the plate.  Moving to right field in PNC Park will allow him to focus more on the offensive side of things.

The right field at PNC is very small compared to center. He should have an easier time tracking down fly balls, as not as much range is required.  Also, playing in a smaller field means he will have less ground to cover.  McCutchen talked about how he had a lot of nagging injuries in 2016.  How many times would we see McCutchen dive for a ball and come up grimacing?  Just maybe, playing in right field will help cut down on the wear and tear his body would go through in center field.

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When McCutchen first reported to Spring, he told the media that he broke down his swing this off-season and completely built it back up.  Hopefully that is the case. ZiPS has McCutchen hitting .276/.370/.474 with a .361 wOBA.  This would make him above league average.  As of now, it makes more sense to believe in Marte and Polanco this season. However, if Cutch gets back to his career line of .292/.381/.488, then the team should be in really good shape come September when the playoff race is tight.