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Pirates' Crowded Outfield Isn't Yet A Problem

First, thanks for your patience with me the past few days. I'm now back in Columbus and am firing on all cylinders after a really tiring weekend.

In the wake of Starling Marte's great Spring Training performance, the amount of talk going around about the Pirates potentially trading an outfielder has been interesting. Obviously, a trade is certainly a possibility, but the amount of discussion about that possibility has probably been disproportionate. Here's why:

It's far from clear that the Pirates have any sort of surplus in the outfield right now. Andrew McCutchen obviously is locked into one spot, and due to his youth and the duration of his contract, Jose Tabata is locked into a bunch of playing time as well. Alex Presley is unproven, however, and Marte hasn't played above Class AA yet. That's really it; the only other good outfield talent who's on track to arrive in the big leagues in any reasonable amount of time is Robbie Grossman, and he's at least a year away. That's not a surplus. It's more talent than the Pirates are used to having at most positions, but it's not as if they have too many good outfielders.

It's likely that Marte will join the team at some point this year. Before that happens, one of the three current starters could get hurt, or play badly. If the guy who plays badly is Presley, and Marte is ready, then there's no problem -- you just move Presley to a fourth-outfielder role, which might be his long-term role anyway, and put Marte in a corner spot. If Tabata plays poorly while Marte lights it up in Indianapolis, that's a different story, due to the Pirates' long-term investment in Tabata, but it certainly wouldn't be that hard to find playing time for everyone, especially as we head into interleague play this summer.

If Presley, Tabata and Marte are all playing well in June, then sure, maybe you think about trading Presley or Marte. (I doubt they'll trade Tabata any time soon -- as someone pointed out in the last thread, Tabata signed with the Bucs at a steep discount because he wants to stay in Pittsburgh, and despite what they did when they traded Nate McLouth, I think the Pirates will try to honor that, at least for a while.) But the outcome where everyone plays well and stays healthy is probably less likely than one where one or more of them doesn't.

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Incidentally -- and this is unrelated to my argument, since I'm not sure what I'm about to say really proves anything -- if all the Bucs' outfielders do play well, the situation the Pirates will have reminds me a little of that of the 2002 Reds. The crux of my argument right now is that the Bucs don't have any kind of logjam yet, but the Reds actually did have an outfield logjam for the better part of two years. (If the Pirates ever get to the point where Cincinnati was, I'm sure I'll change my tune then.)

The Reds had Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns as young stars in the outfield, and of course they also had an injury-plagued Ken Griffey Jr. They had also picked up Juan Encarnacion in the offseason, and Encarnacion played surprisingly well in 2002.

This created sort of a problem, in that the Reds had to have a space available for Griffey during the rare occasions when he was healthy, and Dunn, Kearns and especially Encarnacion weren't helping with that. So they traded Encarnacion for Ryan Dempster.

I'm not sure that was a bad trade at the time, but actually, I think Presley's situation in 2012 has the potential to be a little like Encarnacion's. If the Reds had simply seen Encarnacion as a good fourth outfielder -- which is pretty much what he was, in reality -- they could have saved themselves some trouble. Dempster was terrible with the Reds, and Griffey was hurt a lot down the stretch, causing the Reds to rely on the inferior Reggie Taylor to start in center field.

Again, I'm not sure that proves anything, because Dempster looked like he had potential at that point in his career. It's too bad for the Reds that he didn't realize it until several years later. Trading Encarnacion for him probably wasn't a terrible idea. And it actually turned out well in the end, in that the Encarnacion trade opened a spot for Jose Guillen the following year, and Guillen played amazingly well. The Reds pulled a similar move, and this time they struck gold, shipping away Guillen at the peak of his value for Aaron Harang. If someone like Presley ends up playing as well as Guillen did for the Reds in '03, we'll all be ecstatic. Of course, the '03 Reds had much more of an outfield logjam than the '12 Pirates are likely to.

But it's funny the way the Encarnacion deal turned out -- the Reds thought they had four good outfielders, so they traded one, and then another one couldn't stay healthy, and suddenly they had only two, at least until the following year. That's certainly a possibility with the Pirates as well. If it turns out they can get a great return at a position of greater need for one of their outfielders, that's terrific. But in reality, if they can get three good outfielders out of the four players they now have, they'll have done well. I doubt the Pirates will be looking to trade any of them anytime soon, and until all four of them really force the issue, I wouldn't worry too much about it.