Bryan Reynolds, Travis Swaggerty, and the Future of the Pirates in Center Field

Bryan Reynolds is the bar.

For many years, the bar in Pittsburgh had been set extremely high in center field.

Andrew McCutchen set the bar so high that we didn’t even discuss the future of center field for many seasons.

Starling Marte maintained a high bar.

And now Bryan Reynolds enters the 2020-21 offseason as the best option for the Pirates in center field.

That could be a good or bad thing, depending on where Reynolds sets the bar. The problem is that we don’t really know which version of Reynolds will show up on either side of the ball.

Is it the 2019 hitter who hit his way into the lineup for good, or the 2020 hitter who made you wonder if the 2019 performance was a ceiling?

Is Reynolds a positive value defender, or is he a liability in center field, better suited for left field?

The right combo gets the Pirates the continuation of an All-Star center fielder.

I think a more likely combo from Reynolds gets the Pirates an average overall center fielder who would grade above average in left.

If only they had someone in the system who could push him off the spot.

Travis Swaggerty is the top option, and could challenge for the position by the end of the 2021 season. I see Swaggerty’s upside as everything you’d want from Reynolds in center field. Defense that is good enough to provide positive value, and enough power and on-base ability to provide consistent value on offense. If the ceiling for Reynolds is an average center fielder, that’s a ceiling that Swaggerty could smash through, even if he only ends up floating just slightly higher than the best likely case outcome from Reynolds.

Jared Oliva is an interesting alternative prospect. He’s got the defense for the position, and could arguably provide positive value on that side of the ball. His offense doesn’t project high, but he could cap out as a .750 OPS guy with value on the bases. I’m not sure if that would exceed the value of Reynolds, but Oliva does provide some future depth at the spot.

Anthony Alford got everyone’s attention in just 13 plate appearances, showing how much the Pirates need some kind of answer in center field. Alford’s defense hasn’t been good in the majors in center. His defense has been good at the corners, although he’d need to show he could hit to start there. I could see Alford winning a spot off the bench next year, backing up center field and getting a few starts a week around the outfield to see if his bat can hit him into a long-term spot.

Down in the farm system, Lolo Sanchez has the defense, but needs to hit above A-ball before he’s in the discussion for the position. There are some interesting guys in the lowest levels in Sammy Siani, Jasiah Dixon, and Jase Bowen. A big focus for 2021 in the minors will be watching to see if one of those three can break out and join Swaggerty at the top of the center field depth charts.

Going into the 2021 season, Reynolds looks like the best internal option to start for the Pirates. He could eventually be replaced by Swaggerty, depending on how Swaggerty’s development goes. If Swaggerty doesn’t work out, it could be a few years before another top prospect arrives from the lower levels.

It might make sense to go with Reynolds, rather than looking to the outside for an upgrade. If Reynolds works out, you’ve got your center fielder under control through the 2025 season. That makes Swaggerty arriving a bonus, rather than a necessity, and gives time for the system to develop alternative options to eventually take over. On the flip side, if Reynolds doesn’t work out in 2021, you know that center field is a need going forward, while having a better idea of what to expect going forward from Swaggerty.