Pirates’ Spring Position Battles: Centerfield

Center is an interesting position for the Pirates.  There are short-, middle- and long-term possibilities in camp.  There’s even a veteran NRI who can actually, you know, hit a little.  I doubt we’ll see anybody establish himself as The Centerfielder in the short-term, absent Anthony Alford suddenly living up to the potential scouts have seen in him.

Obviously, some of the players below are going to play a lot, or even entirely, in the corners.  I’ve listed everybody who could conceivably get meaningful time in center.

Anthony Alford:  The Pirates’ fantasy is probably to see Alford take charge of the position and live up to the potential that got him drafted in the third round out of high school.  He’s had an oddly disjointed career.  His signing deal allowed him to play college football.  As a result, he hardly played in his first three pro seasons, getting just 94 total ABs and getting added to the 40-man roster sooner than the Jays probably would have preferred.  He hit well in the lower minors, but the results weren’t so good in two partial seasons in AAA.  He’s gotten very brief stints in the bigs in four different seasons — just 71 total ABs — and has had trouble making contact.  The Pirates claimed him off waivers just after he turned 26 and he looked intriguing in five games, but he fractured his elbow running into a wall.  So he’s more legitimately a mystery than you can normally say about a guy who’ll turn 27 at mid-season, but we do know he can run and play defense.  He has no options.

Odds of playing in Pgh. this season:  100%

Jared Oliva:  With a history of starting slowly at new levels and then getting hot, the Pirates might want to see Oliva get some time in AAA, which he hasn’t had.  It might be more interesting to see what he could do in the majors now, especially with Travis Swaggerty coming along behind.  We know at least that he can run and play defense, and he has a good chance long-term of being at least a fourth outfielder.  (An outfield defense of Oliva, Swaggerty and Bryan Reynolds could be very good.)  Having Alford and Brian Goodwin for competition will make it tough, so Oliva is one of the players in camp with a lot at stake.  Hopefully, he’ll get plenty of chances to make an impression.

Odds of playing in Pgh. this season:  90%

Bryan Reynolds:  Obviously, the big mystery is what happened in 2020, but Reynolds remains part of the core going forward.  The Pirates keep saying they’re confident he can play center, but they keep not committing to him there.  He seems to be more of a Plan B, although with LF at PNC Park being what it is, that might make sense.  The metrics (UZR and Statcast’s OAA) suggest he’s at least average in center, maybe a little better.

Odds of playing in Pgh. this season:  100%

Brian Goodwin:  Goodwin is way more interesting than the Pirates’ typical veteran NRI.  He’s mostly been a solid hitter in the majors, but he’s been handicapped by some ill-timed injuries in 2017-18 and being blocked by bigger names in Washington.  He swings and misses too often to get on base much, but he’s usually hit for good power.  He also doesn’t have a platoon split, so he’s not necessarily a platoon guy.  He has average speed and the metrics have him as somewhere around average in center.  (Oddly, by the metrics he looks better in center than in left.)  Goodwin probably has a chance of winning at least part of the center field job and may be the presumptive favorite as fourth outfielder.  The battle between him, Oliva and Alford may be as interesting as the shortstop battle.

Odds of playing in Pgh. this season:  80%

Travis Swaggerty:  Some, but not all, of the prospect mavens are still very high on Swaggerty despite the fact that he hasn’t set the woods on fire with the bat in the minors.  He did have a very strong final two months in 2019 in the awful hitting environment of the Florida State League, and that included cutting down substantially on the swing-and-miss.  (It was mainly a miserable .489 OPS in June that depressed his numbers after a decent start.)  The issue for Swaggerty may be just how hard he’s going to try to hit for power.  He’s a legit centerfielder with one of the better arms in the organization.  So what he’s got to play for this spring is a chance to convince the Pirates to skip him up a level to AAA.

Odds of playing in Pgh. this season:  <10%