With Anthony Alford and Dustin Fowler out of the picture, who is next in line to man center field for the Pittsburgh Pirates?
The Pittsburgh Pirates ended their trial with Anthony Alford as their starting center fielder on Wednesday when they designated him for assignment. The former top Toronto Blue Jay prospect collected just 2 hits in 11 games and 29 trips to the plate this season leading to his subsequent DFA.
Alford opened the season with the upper hand on taking the reins in center field for the 2021 season but was not able to run away with the opportunity. The next man up in center field was fellow former top 100 prospect Dustin Fowler.
With Alford and Fowler now out of the picture, who could be the net man up in center field for the Pittsburgh Pirates?
The player that the Pittsburgh Pirates DFA’d Alford to make room for, Ka’ai Tom, may get a shot at playing time in center field this year. The Hawaiian-born outfielder was selected by the A’s from the Cleveland Indians in the Rule 5 Draft. Tom was recently DFA’d as well, leading to the Pirates claiming him.
While Tom’s 16 plate appearance sample size saw him get just one hit, his last full professional season was very impressive. In 2019, Tom collected 554 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A while posting a .290/.380/.532 line and smacking 23 home runs, coming together in a .393 wOBA. He put up a wRC+ above 130 at both levels, reaching 162 at Double-A. He also showed great plate discipline with a great 11.6% walk rate and solid 22.7% strikeout rate.
Overall, the former Indian outfield prospect has a .270/.360/.444 line and .353 wOBA. Just like in 2019, he’s displayed a solid eye at the plate with an 11.2% walk rate to go against a 19.5% strikeout rate. Tom also has experience at all three corner outfield spots and some experts have cited he’s overlooked because of his small stature, weighing in at 5’9″, 185 pounds, and lower power output despite him consistently being able to put up average or better results at every level of the minor leagues so far. All in all Tom seems like a great buy low options with a potential high reward, you can read more about Tom and his skillset here.
Tom is far from the team’s only center field capable option in the organization. The Pittsburgh Pirates could eventually turn to outfield prospect Jared Oliva.
Oliva didn’t do so hot in his first taste of big-league pitching in 2020. He only got 3 hits in 16 trips to the plate while striking out in 6 of those plate appearances. However, he was a pretty solid batter at Double-A in 2019.
Through 507 plate appearances at Altoona, Oliva hit .277/.352/.398 with a .343 wOBA and 123 wRC+. He also swiped 36 bags in 46 attempts making it the second year in a row he stole 30 or more bases.
While he doesn’t walk at an insane rate, nor keep his strikeouts down below 15%, he still walked at an 8.3% rate and had a solid 20.5% strikeout rate. Oliva is considered a solid defender out in center who can cover a lot of ground with his 60-grade speed. He also has a bit of power potential with a 55-raw power grade. Currently, both MLB Pipeline and FanGraphs rank him as one of the team’s top 20 prospects.
There’s also veteran Brian Goodwin the team could eventually turn to. Goodwin was a pretty solid batter with the Los Angeles Angles in 2019-2020. Through 567 plate appearances, the outfielder hit .258/.327/.469 with a .333 wOBA and 109 wRC+. Goodwin showed some decent power as well, crushing 21 long balls and having a .211 isolated slugging percentage. Goodwin struggled heavily after being traded to the Cincinnati Reds during the 2020 trade deadline. He had a sub-.600 OPS with the club, but the Bucs were able to pick him up on a minor league deal as outfield depth.
Goodwin has experience at all outfield positions. Overall, he’s an average to below-average defender out in center with -8 DRS, -.5 UZR/150, -3.9 range runs above average, but +4.1 outfield arm runs above average in 958 innings.
The team does have some options already on the 26-man roster. When top third base prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes returns from his IL stint, the Bucs should try and find a way to get Phillip Evans regular playing time. Evans has been nothing short of outstanding since arriving in Pittsburgh. So far this year, the utility man is currently batting .293/.376/.534 with 4 home runs and a .399 wOBA. So far, he’s seen time at both corner infield and outfield spots.
Putting Evans in left field regularly would mean pushing Bryan Reynolds to center field. Reynolds has recently caught fire. Through the team’s first 19 games this season Reynolds is hitting for a .313/.418/.463 slash line to go with a wRC+ of 146. The poor 2020 season Reynolds had looks to be more of a sophomore slump as he’s regained the form that helped him finish 4th in National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2019.
Overall, the Pittsburgh Pirates have time to experiment with center field this season. It’s not a win-now season and is the main focus of 2021 is the development of young players and prospects. Eventually, we’ll see the likes of Travis Swaggerty and Oneil Cruz, the ladder of whom started to get work out in center field in Spring Training and will likely continue to see more time there in the minors this year, in the next year or two.
Another year after that, we may see one of the organization’s more exciting prospects, Hudson Head, get some time in the grass at PNC Park. Right now, it makes sense to try different things out with fringe guys like Tom, Oliva and Goodwin. None really project as long term pieces or key pieces of the Pirates future, but the team might find a diamond in the rough among them. The Bucs have nothing to lose and potenitially something to gain from trying out different options in center.