Pittsburgh Pirates: Potential Future Outfield Alignment

(Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) /

The Pittsburgh Pirates traded Joe Musgrove for a five player package last Monday. Of the five players, outfielder Hudson Head was the headliner going back to Pittsburgh. Head is primarily a center fielder and one of the best prospects in the organization. How could his addition impact the future alignment of the Pirate outfield?

Head was drafted with the Padres’ 3rd round pick out of Winston Churchill High School in 2019. Despite being picked in the 3rd round, Head has 1st round talent. He was picked much later than his ability suggests given he was the quarterback of his high school’s football team and scouts didn’t get a full showcase of his ability.

During the 2019 season Head appeared in 32 games and collected 141 plate appearances at the Padres’ Rookie-Ball affiliate and put up a strong .283/.383/.417 line with a 119 wRC+ and .375 wOBA. Head had a solid 20.6% strikeout rate and above average 10.6% walk rate. Both of those were pretty notable numbers for a player in his age 18 season.

Head has five tool potential. He showed his hit tool last year, but many project his power to eventually develop into an above average tool. He’s also highly athletic, already possessing 60-grade speed while projecting as a 55-grade defender with a 55-grade arm.

Head each of his games in center field, making him the second notable center field prospect to join the Pirate organization in recent years. The other is 2018 1st round pick Travis Swaggerty. Swaggerty played a full season of professional baseball in 2019 with the Pittsburgh Pirates High-A affiliate. Swaggerty posted a solid .265/.347/.381 line to go with a .341 wOBA and 120 wRC+. Swaggerty put up a similar walk rate to Head with a 10.9% rate, but struck out just a bit more at 22.1%. It should be noted that Swaggerty got off to a cold start to the 2019 season. The first half of the season saw him hit just .221/.318/.329 before hitting .306/.375/.430 down the stretch. There’s no question about Swag’s ability to defend. He has 60-future fielding and arm grades by FanGraphs.

However, the power has yet to develop. Swaggerty put up an 89 MPH exit velocity and has a 60-future raw power grade. Despite that, he was only able to put up a .116 isolated slugging percentage and hit just 9 long balls. Swaggerty did hit a lot of ground balls, having a 49.3% ground ball rate to go with a line drive rate of just 15%. Swaggerty’s best tool is his speed with a 65-grade on FanGraphs and he gets on base enough to make his speed a real weapon. If he can even develop average game power, which FanGraphs sees as a good possibility, he could be a really solid player as his plate discipline and getting on base will make him a threat atop a strong line-up.

The Pirates’ long term left fielder might already be in the Majors. That would be switch hitter Bryan Reynolds. Reynolds had an outstanding rookie campaign, posting a .371 wOBA, 130 wRC+ and .880 OPS through his first 546 plate appearance at the major league level. However, 2020 was a rough season for Reynolds offensively. He collected a total of 208 plate appearances where he had a .189/.275/.357 line and 72 wRC+.

Reynolds did see a big step forward defensively posting positives in range runs above average, outfield arm runs above average and UZR after being well into the negatives in the three stats in 2019. He also had two more DRS (+5 to +7) in 2020 compared to 2019 in much fewer innings played. Reynolds struggled from some bad batted ball luck as his ground ball percentage went down, but his batting average on balls in play was just .231. In comparison, his minor league BAbip was .378 and his BAbip in 2019 was .387. However, he did make much less hard contact with his exit velo dropping 2 MPH to 87.5 MPH and his hard hit rate sitting at just 38.3% after being at 41.6% the year prior.

Still, this is a small sample size of less than 250 plate appearances in one of the weirdest MLB seasons ever. It could just be a fluke given the small amount of time Reynolds got to play. Reynolds could easily bounceback in 2021 if he stays healthy and gets consistent playing time.

The question remains what the Pittsburgh Pirates should do in right field.

Currently, the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t have a high ranking right field prospect, but many believe that their top shortstop prospect, Oneil Cruz, will eventually move to an outfield spot. Cruz is athletic enough to play an outfield spot and has tremendous power that he generates from his 6’7″, 210 pound frame. He has an 80-future raw power grade and 60-future game power grade.

Plus, he has one of the strongest arms in all of professional baseball with an 80-grade on FanGraphs. He’s also considered an average defender at shortstop, but will have heavy competition at the middle infield position with prospect Liover Peguero. Peugero is seen as a better fit at shortstop than Cruz and a better fielder as well.

However, the acquisition of Head means the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t have to move Cruz off of shortstop. The slugger’s bat would definitely play up at short, but the question is can he hold up at shortstop. Moving him to an outfield spot would keep him from playing such a physically demanding position. Cruz would be the tallest regular shortstop to ever play the game, standing at three inches taller than Cal Ripken Jr. The Pirates likely don’t want to risk having a Troy Tulowitzki situation on their hands, someone who’s extremely productive when healthy, but struggles to stay healthy consistently.

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Now, granted, Head is still very young. 2021 will be his age-20 season. There’s a lot of things that can happen between now and his ETA which should be around 2023 or 2024. In a perfect world, Cruz would likely get a fair amount of time at first base while also seeing time all around the field. In the outfield, Swaggerty would stay in center with Reynolds in left and Head in right. However, you can never have enough talent and it’s better to stock up on talent at multiple positions than to limit yourself to only a few prospects and hoping they all pan out.