Is there a free agent center fielder out there that would be better than Bryan Reynolds?
That’s a complicated question that isn’t fully determined by the results of the 2021 season.
Over the last two days, I’ve broken down how Reynolds became the center fielder in 2020, and who the Pirates have in the system who could replace Reynolds. Travis Swaggerty could emerge as a replacement for Reynolds and an upgrade. Other than Swaggerty, the Pirates have several years to go before another starting candidate emerges, dipping down to the unproven group of Sammy Siani, Jasiah Dixon, and Jase Bowen at the lowest levels for the next best hope.
I’m not sure if Reynolds can be a long-term option in center field. He has two small sample sizes at the position, with much different defensive values. He also has two seasons of completely different offensive results. If Reynolds can’t hit, pretty much all bets are off on him being a productive starter anywhere on the field. But let’s go with the assumption that 2020 was the fluke, and 2019 is closer to his abilities on offense.
If we go with that assumption, then the only thing to focus on with Reynolds is his defensive value. How much does he help or hurt the team in center field? Again, we don’t really know the quality of center fielder that he can be. At worst, I see him as a guy who can stick in center, but who will only provide positive defensive value in left. That would require a better center fielder to move him off the spot.
The free agent market has some good options for defense in center field. Billy Hamilton gives you speed and defense, but hardly any offense. Jake Marisnick might be the best chance for the Pirates at getting strong defense and offense from the position. I’d put Jackie Bradley Jr. in that category as well. They could also go the aging veteran route again and get someone like Brett Gardner, Jon Jay, or our old friend Jarrod Dyson.
You’d move Reynolds to left field in any scenario, where his defense would provide positive value. The alternative is to keep Reynolds in center field and try to find a bat at one of the corners. It might be easier for the Pirates to find a corner bat than it would be to find a strong defender in center who can hit.
That’s just for the 2021 season, and ultimately, the 2021 results aren’t going to matter. The results might matter in 2022 and beyond, which is when the Pirates need some answers about Reynolds and their center field situation.
By this time next year, we’ll have a better idea of Travis Swaggerty’s ETA in the majors. He might even be in the majors by this time next year.
We’ll also have a better idea of whether Reynolds can play center in the majors, assuming he gets playing time at the spot in 2021. On top of that, we’ll have another full season of offense to judge his value on that side of the ball.
Heading into 2022, the Pirates might be set with Swaggerty as their future center fielder, allowing Reynolds to play out the remainder of his time in Pittsburgh in left field. But it would be foolish to bank the future of such an important position on one prospect.
That’s why I think it would be best to try Reynolds in center field in 2021. At worst, you know that you need an alternative option for Swaggerty. At best, you don’t need Swaggerty in center because Reynolds can handle things on both sides.
If you go with someone like Marisnick or one of the veteran defenders, you’re looking at a one-year deal with a lot of the same questions. Will Swaggerty be ready by the end of that deal, and if he isn’t, can Reynolds play center? By playing Reynolds at the spot in 2021, you at least answer that question. The Pirates might also have a chance at building a better team by selecting from the available bats at the corners, while gambling that Reynolds returns his offense from 2019 to combine with his defense in center from 2020.
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