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How can the Pirates upgrade at right field?

Justin K. Aller

Quick quiz: Who led the Pirates in at bats in right field last season?

Answer: Travis Snider, with 201. Not a shocking answer, certainly, but one that surprised me a little when I looked it up, given that Snider was injured and/or irrelevant for much of the season. Anyway, right field is one of the positions, along with first base and shortstop, that remain somewhat unsettled for the Pirates next season.

Until last offseason, of course, Neal Huntington had a lot of trouble upgrading the Pirates during the offseason. Part of that was that he didn't pick the right players, but part of it was that, when you're the Pirates, it's very difficult to upgrade on the free agent market. This year will be no exception, as there are few great options at first base and shortstop, and with any really interesting possibility, the qualifying offer muddies the issue.

Right field will also be tricky, but for different reasons. The Pirates already possess two right-field options in Jose Tabata and Andrew Lambo who have the potential to at least be palatable. And after that, they'll have Gregory Polanco. My guess is that Polanco is a little further from the majors than most fans think -- he didn't even hit all that well at Double-A this year. But with the possibility of a Marte-McCutchen-Polanco outfield on the horizon by late 2014 or early 2015, the Pirates have less incentive than usual to make a multiyear commitment to an outfielder this offseason.

This doesn't mean signing an outfielder to a multiyear would automatically be a bad idea. There are many more interesting free-agent options at right field than at first base or shortstop, so the Pirates could, say, re-sign Marlon Byrd to a two-year deal, then keep him until Polanco forces their hand, at which point they'd have the freedom to trade Byrd, or move him into a fourth-outfielder role, or even swing some monster deal involving Polanco. Any one of those possibilities could give the Pirates the freedom to be major players at the 2014 trade deadline, or in the 2014-15 offseason.

Or, to put it a different way, the top outfielders on this year's free agent market include Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Nelson Cruz, Carlos Beltran, Curtis Granderson and Byrd, while the top first baseman include ... uh ... Mike Napoli, Kendrys Morales and James Loney. Obviously, the Pirates aren't very likely to sign Ellsbury or Choo, and there will be more competition for the available outfielders than the available first basemen, but if the greater amount of talent on the outfield free agent market means the Pirates can get a better deal there, they shouldn't necessarily avoid one just because of Polanco. And if the Bucs don't sign someone to a multiyear deal, they'll probably have trouble upgrading on the free agent market, since most of the potential one-year possibilities (like Mike Morse, whose name Pirates fans have mentioned for months, even though he's a bad player) aren't really upgrades at all.

In any case, if the Pirates decide to go with what they have at right field in 2014, it won't be a disaster. There's nothing wrong with giving Tabata the job out of Spring Training, particularly with Polanco knocking on the door behind him. And Lambo has become a forgotten man, and I'm not sure why -- the Pirates' actions strongly suggest they're not that interested in Lambo, but he only got 33 big-league plate appearances to prove himself in 2013, and he hit 32 home runs in the minor leagues this year. The Pirates shouldn't give him the J.J. Davis treatment. If Tabata doesn't hack it, Lambo is a good backup option. Most of us were excited to see what Lambo could do just a couple months ago, and there isn't much reason for us to feel differently now.

Looking at the Pirates' offseason in terms of positional needs may be the wrong approach. Sure, they'll probably acquire a first baseman somehow. But the Bucs are a good team, and the free agent market doesn't offer tons of obvious, reasonably-priced alternatives to the players they already have. I'm sure they'll upgrade this offseason, but my guess is that they'll make some sort of big move that will have less to do with what position their acquisition plays and more to do with him simply being an impact player somewhere.