Centerfield was a position the Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t have to worry about for years. But after the Starling Marte trade, what does the future of the position hold?
For the first time in over a decade, the Pittsburgh Pirates will enter 2020 with a not-so-pretty answer in center field. From 2009 to 2017, Andrew McCutchen was the automatic answer for the Pirates CF needs. He then once he was traded to the Giants during the 2017-2018 off-season, he passed on the baton to Starling Marte, who served as the team’s primary centerfielder for 2018 and 2019.
However after Marte was traded, the Pirates were left with no good answer in center field. Today, I wanted to take a look at the current status of the position, and who will eventually be the go-to answer in the future when the Pirates are looking for a good everyday answer at the position.
Currently, recent signee Jarrod Dyson is probably going to get the most reps out in center in 2020. Dyson is one of the best defensive outfielders in the game. Last season, Dyson had 13 DRS which was the 6th most of any outfielder in the MLB (min. 800 innings). Dyson’s 7.9 UZR also ranked in the top 10 (8th), while he saved 5.7 arm runs (3rd).
In terms of speed, Dyson’s 28.4 feet/second sprint speed ranked 117th in the MLB, which put him just a step behind Dee Gordon (28.5 feet/second). However, his speed makes him a baserunning threat. Dyson walks a decent amount, having a 10.7 walk % in the past two seasons. That’s in line with some batters like J.D. Martinez, and Eugenio Suarez in terms of plate discipline.
However, Dyson isn’t going to be much of a run producer. He has a career .338 slugging %, and hit right below that mark last season at .320. However, his 66 OPS+ is one of his career lowest. His average is 78, and in his prime, he sat just below the 90 mark.
Past Dyson, the major league depth is pretty thin. One of the other players the Bucs signed over the off-season, the light hitting Guilermo Heredia has experience in centerfield, but with a career -13 DRS at the position, he isn’t the best fallback option. 2019 Rookie Standout Bryan Reynolds could also see some time up the middle. The switch hitter recorded 188 innings out in CF, and posted overall average results (0 DRS, -.3 UZR), but with a lack of depth at the position, Reynolds could easily move to center more times in 2020.
Another off-season signee, JT Riddle played a good amount of time in center last year. Despite it being the first time in his professional career Riddle played something outside the infield, he didn’t do awfully bad with 0 DRS and -1.7 UZR.
The future is much brighter for the Pirates in center. Prospect Jason Martin’s primary position throughout the minors has been center. with 61.7% of his professional innings playing the field have come from centerfield. However, Martin grades out as an average fielder with an average bat. He probably won’t have a much higher ceiling than a platoon outfielder on a bad team, and 4th outfielder on a good team.
The likeliest long-term answer for the Bucs center field needs is 2018 First Rounder Travis Swaggerty. Last season, Swaggerty posted a strong 120 wRC+. His numbers would have looked better if it weren’t for a weak first half of 2019. In the second half, the left-handed batter had a .805 OPS.
Swaggerty has the range and fielding prowess to play center. Both his floor and ceiling in terms of defensive potential are very high. Currently, he has a grade of 55 for his fielding, with a 60 future grade. Fangraphs gives his fielding a 55 grade with a 60 future grade, and his arm a 60 overall grade. His 65 run grade is comparable to that of Cristian Pache and better than Gavin Lux.
For the next season or two, it looks like the Pirates are content using stopgaps for now, which is understandable. Dyson will serve as the Bucs’ primary CF for 2020, with Martin potentially taking over until Swaggerty is ready in 2021. They could also decide to keep Martin in a 4th outfielder capacity, as there will be many other stopgap like centerfield capable options next off-season such as Michael A. Taylor, Jackie Bradley Jr., Jake Marisnick, and Kevin Pillar.