The left field position is up in the air right now for the Pirates.
In the long-term, I’ve got Bryan Reynolds projected to be the starter for the Pirates in left.
Reynolds began the 2020 season as the starter for the Pirates in left field, but moved to center field by the end of the season. There has been talk that Reynolds could stick there in 2021, due to the lack of options. I broke down the center field situation a few weeks ago, looking at the factors that could have Reynolds moving over.
If Reynolds does end up in center field, even if it’s only for 2021, it leaves the Pirates with an interesting decision for their left field spot. Their outfield depth in the system is the weakest its been in years, which is to be expected when your system over the last decade has churned out Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Austin Meadows, and even lesser role guys like Alex Pressley and Robbie Grossman. The era of a strong outfield in Pittsburgh is over, or at least on a long pause for the moment.
What the Pirates have now is a choice.
Some of their options for left field are actual outfielders, but prospects who either aren’t ready yet or older prospects who have yet to successfully make the jump to the majors.
The other options are infielders who can play the outfield position, and even play it well, but who will likely give you a ceiling of an average starter, and no long-term answers.
Let’s break down the options.
Alford was claimed off waivers by the Pirates from Ben Cherington’s former organization, the Toronto Blue Jays. He spent a very brief amount of time in Pittsburgh this year, getting 12 at-bats, with a .975 OPS thanks to a triple and a homer. He’s almost certainly going to make the 2021 team in some role, even if it’s just as a bench outfielder to boost the depth.
The hope with Alford is that everything will click for the former top 100 prospect. He only has 83 at-bats in the majors across four seasons, with a .529 OPS during that stretch. The Blue Jays parted ways with the 26-year-old still-prospect, and now the Pirates will see if Alford can finally make the jump to the majors in their organization.
Alford’s game is fueled by power, speed, and defense. He’ll need to show plus power in order to make up for the lack of contact skills, and if he wants a chance at being a starter. Otherwise I see him mostly playing off the bench as a fourth outfielder.
Frazier might be the best starting option for the Pirates to open the season. That is assuming they go with someone like Kevin Newman as the starter at second. Frazier is only under team control through the 2022 season, unless the Pirates decided to extend him. That would make sense if they value him as a super utility player.
The biggest question mark I have about Frazier is the consistency of his bat. He’s been pretty consistently around the .750 OPS range in his career, but that includes a lot of ups and downs, including a trip to the minors in 2018 where he returned as a starter, and a down year in 2020.
Defensively, Frazier can offer value all over the field. Most of his value the last few years has come from his defense at second, which has led to positive value since returning from the minors in 2018. Prior to that, he was seen as a guy who couldn’t start due to poor defense. He’s played 693 innings in left field in the majors, with a 7.0 UZR/150, and positive DRS and PM values.
Frazier can handle the position defensively, with the only question being on his bat. That gives him a leg up with this group.
Evans is like Frazier-lite. You don’t really know what you’re getting here on either side of the ball, but there’s hope on both sides, with the chance for a super utility player off the bench who could be an average starter if you need him. The chance here is less than the chance Frazier has.
Defensively, Evans has been an infielder first, but has played a limited amount of time in the outfield, including 17 innings with the Pirates in the majors. He can play third base, second base, first base, and all three outfield spots, and his work in the outfield hasn’t been prohibitive in limited playing time.
Evans was a huge surprise on offense for his limited time in Pittsburgh this year, before going down with a broken jaw in a collision on the field with Gregory Polanco. He hit for a .359/.444/.487 line in 39 at-bats. That’s hardly enough playing time to legitimize those numbers, but the numbers are strong enough that Evans should return as a bench candidate next year. He has options remaining, so he could go to the minors, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a test early in the season, especially if he hits well in Spring Training.
Oliva is a true outfielder, and more of a center field option than a left fielder. If he’s good enough to start in the majors, I’d have him in center field over Reynolds, with Reynolds moving back to left field. That would be the best defensive alignment. Unfortunately, there’s something about the outfield where the best position is given to the veterans or the best overall player, or some decision that doesn’t exclusively focus on defense for defensive alignment.
As a result, if Oliva plays in the majors this year, I see it happening in left field, rather than moving Reynolds off center. I don’t think Reynolds will move until there’s a long-term option up. Travis Swaggerty would be that option. I think Oliva would have to work his way into that type of long-term role after arriving in the majors, almost similar to what Reynolds did.
Oliva should begin the 2021 season in Triple-A, but could be in the majors by the end of the season, and has average starter upside at the corners.
Tucker is a blend of an infielder moving to the outfield, and a prospect who has yet to work out in the majors. He’s the worst combination of Anthony Alford and Adam Frazier, giving you questions about whether he’ll reach his upside, with inconsistent offense, no guarantee he’ll ever hit enough to stick in the majors, and questions about why he’s even playing the outfield in the first place.
Still, I see Tucker as a wild card in the form of a massive lottery ticket. He’s got the tools to hit. He’s got the frame to add power. He’s got speed. He’s athletic enough to play all over the field, even if you wonder why they’re teaching him outfield on the fly when shortstop is wide open for now and he’s one of the better defenders at the position on the team.
It sounds crazy right now to suggest that Tucker could be a future starter on this team, and there’s really nothing to support it from a numbers standpoint. It’s purely from a scouting standpoint, just as it always has been with Tucker, and we’re nearing the end of the road for that line of hope. But I don’t see discussing Tucker’s chances of a breakout as much less plausible than I do the chances that Phillip Evans will get anywhere close to his small sample size offensive breakout in 2021.
In the end, this is a numbers game. Tucker doesn’t give you the strongest number of the group, but he’s another option for an organization that will get their first full season chance to see if they can push guys like Tucker, Alford, and Evans over the MLB development finish line.