Pittsburgh Pirates: Outfield Could Become a Strength in 2022

(Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images) /

The Pittsburgh Pirates could have a very strong group of outfielders in the major leagues during and throughout the 2022 season.

We’ve talked plenty of times about how talented the Pittsburgh Pirates young pitching is. There’s a ton of it throughout their minor league system. There’s also a ton of highly talented middle infielders and now even catchers in the system. Overall, it’s one of the best in baseball.

But one area that doesn’t get enough attention are the young outfielders the Pittsburgh Pirates have in their organization. Many of their top prospects are outfield capable and could form a strong outfield alignment in 2022.

Bryan Reynolds needs no introduction. He’s been an MVP-caliber hitter while providing enough value with the glove in center field to make a strong statement that it’s his position. He has a wRC+ above 140, an fWAR above 4.0, is showing pop, walking at a career-high rate, and has a sub-20% strikeout rate. He’s definitely part of this team’s future.

But the Pittsburgh Pirates will have another highly talented centerfield capable outfielder coming up next season, that being Travis Swaggerty. Had Swaggerty not injured his shoulder, forcing him to undergo surgery, he’d already have been in the major leagues.

Swaggerty got off to a solid start at Triple-A this year, posting a .220/.333/.439 line in his first 48 trips to the plate. He was hitting a ton of line drives and fly balls while having a sub-40% ground ball rate. Despite that, he had a very unlucky .220 batting average on balls in play. Swaggerty has always been praised for his raw power and finally started to translate that into game power this year. He had a .220 ISO and smacked 3 home runs. His HR/FB ratio was nearly 20% higher in 2021 than in 2019. The start to Swaggerty’s 2021 season shouldn’t be a huge surprise as he ended 2019 on a hot streak. Plus, with an outstanding glove and speed, Swaggerty has the potential to be a long-term outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Swaggerty wasn’t the only outfield prospect doing well in the upper minors. Canaan Smtih-Njigba has been putting together a fine season at Double-A. He’s hit .286/.403/.427 through 248 plate appearances. While not hitting for a ton of power, he has a 16.1% walk rate. There’s little to no question about his raw power.

FanGraphs currently grades it at 60. He hasn’t fully translated that into game power, but it’s undoubtly there. Maybe all he needs is to get the ball in the air more to fully unlock it. He has a very high 65.4% ground ball rate and a meager 11% line drive rate. Despite that, he has a solid batting average and a .387 batting average on balls in play. Though that is a high BAbip, we are looking at less than 300 plate appearances, and you need more of a sample size to get a good reading from BAbip, it’s pretty impressive to have that high of a mark despite hitting a batted ball result that is the worst in the sport over 65% of the time. Now he could improve it. He had a strong 26% line drive rate and a more normal 43.4% ground ball rate in 2019. But regardless, Smith-Njigba is another talented young outfielder in the system who could get his first taste of big-league action in 2022.

One infielder who could make the transition to the outfield is Oneil Cruz. The big slugger has put up tremendous numbers at Double-A this season, posting a .299/.358/.540 line with 9 home runs in 205 plate appearances. Cruz has shown off his light-tower power with a .251 isolated slugging percentage. Though his plate discipline is merely average at best. He has a 7.8% walk rate and 23.4% strikeout rate. But overall, he has a .385 wOBA and 140 wRC+. He came off the IL in a big way recently, going 3-5 with 2 doubles.

Cruz is plenty fast and athletic enough to make the transition to right field or even centerfield. He’s more than adequate at shortstop and has an extremely powerful arm. However, errant throws have come back to bite him more than once. With his strong arm and athleticism, he could make for a very good outfielder. He already got a few reps there in Spring Training this year and was getting stretched out in the grass before his injury. Speaking that the Pittsburgh Pirates have at least toyed with the idea that Cruz will get some outfield time, I think that by next season, he’s playing some in PNC Park’s outfield next season.

Another Double-A middle infielder who has started to get some time in the outfield is Ji-Hwan Bae. The speedy Korean second baseman/shortstop is hitting for a solid .264/.338/.407 line at Double-A. Along with this, he has shown more power this year with a .147 isolated slugging percentage. This is a huge step forward as he had a .107 mark in 2019. Plus he’s walking at a solid rate of 9.4%.

Bae is more than fast enough to man center field, the position he’s gotten all his outfield playing time at. He has 65-grade speed. Though even after he’s done developing, he’s still projected to have 60-grade speed. He’s a contact-hitting/on-base kind of player with a 70-grade projected hit tool. Though he’s never received good reviews on his power potential, an ISO approaching around .140 isn’t bad. If he can get that to .150, he’ll be showing more than enough raw power to make it to the majors.

The  best performing minor league for the Pittsburgh Pirates this season has been Matthew Fraizer. The lefty-swinging outfielder has put up a .321/.400/.585 line with 22 home runs and 20 doubles in 424 plate appearances between High-A and Double-A. Plus he’s reached 15 stolen bases this season. Along with his strong hitting numbers, he’s walked at a healthy 10.8% rate and struck out at a solid 21% mark. Overall, he’s put up a .438 wOBA while having a wRC+ above 150 (158 at Greensboro, 167 at Altoona) between the two levels. While he might not be the most talented, or highest ceiling prospect in the system, you can’t ignore a guy putting up a wOBA well above .400 and wRC+ around 160 in a full minor league season.

There are a handful of players who could make their debuts for the Pirates in the grass next season. Slugger Jack Suwinski could make his debut in 2022. Lolo Sanchez has hit very well at High-A Greensboro. If he doesn’t get promoted to Double-A by the end of this year, he should start there next season and possibly get his first few plate appearances in. Cal Mitchell, another Double-A outfielder, is putting up solid numbers. He’s another possible player to get a call to the show next year.

The Pittsburgh Pirates also have a handful of outfield capable players in the upper minors and on the major league roster who could contribute to the wealth of depth. Tucupcita Marcano, who’s primarily an infielder, has seen time at all three outfield spots this year. Michael Chavis and Yoshi Tsutsugo could return as infield/left-field options. Anthony Alford could return next season to provide some more outfield depth. Wilmer Difo has seen a decent amount of time in the outfield this year.

Maybe Kevin Newman starts getting some reps in the grass in order to accommodate for the multitude of middle-infield prospects. While everyone here, aside from Marcano, represents more of outfield depth or solid bench bats at best rather than a big-league regular, they all still provide solid 5th or 6th outfield options.

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There is a lot of outfield capable players within the Pirates’ organization. Many of those players will come up next year. While Swaggerty, Cruz, Smith-Njigba, and Bae might be the most exciting and high-ranking players, they’re far from the only outfield capable young players.