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Pirates’ post-mortem: The outfield

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

To a large extent, the story of the Pirates’ outfield was the story of their very sad season. They thought they had one of the best outfields in baseball and ended up with one of the worst. They were 22nd among outfields in wRC+, 19th in fWAR, and 22nd in OPS.

I’m guessing everybody remembers Andrew McCutchen’s mind-numbing slumps, Starling Marte’s suspension and Gregory Polanco’s many injuries. John Jaso’s and Jose Osuna’s meanderings in right field probably stick in the mind as well. (I’m guessing a lot of fans, though, would be surprised that the defensive metrics show Polanco was an above-average defender, and also an above-average baserunner.)

So how much of this was just bad luck? The “dream outfield” was together for just 26 games, and eight of them were in the season’s first week and a half. Not counting Jordan Luplow and Danny Ortiz, who are actually outfielders, the Pirates started Adam Frazier, Jaso, Osuna, Sean Rodriguez, Josh Harrison and Chris Bostick 132 times in the outfield. And that doesn’t count the many games that Polanco played when he clearly wasn’t healthy, and possibly quite a few in which Cutch did the same.

Cutch’s bad first two months are hard to explain, but a lot of the outfield’s struggles line up quite well with the injuries. Cutch had a late-season slump that was even worse than his early-season one, but that one started exactly when he hurt his knee in Toronto. He was still blistering hot when that happened, but starting when he returned to the lineup two days later, he had a .461 OPS over the next three weeks. Over the season’s last month, his OPS was back up to .927.

Polanco’s misadventures are harder to track because he had so many injuries and the Pirates often tried to play him through injuries. He had two healthy interludes, though. He started the season with a shoulder injury he suffered in the World Baseball Classic and he also had a groin injury in April. In May, though, he had a .900 OPS, but he suffered his first hamstring injury late in the month. The Pirates, as they’ve often done with Polanco, tried to nurse him through it while keeping him mostly on the field and he had a miserable June. In July, though, he had an OPS of 1.035. He then spent the last two months of the season struggling with more hamstring problems and hit badly when he played.

Marte, of course, created his own bad luck. How much the suspension affected his play is impossible to say. He’s always been a very streaky hitter. He got off to a bad start in 2017, which was nothing new; the same thing happened in 2017. He also supposedly knew the suspension was coming, which might have had an impact. Then he struggled for 25 games after coming back, basically from mid-July to mid-August. It’s probably a coincidence, but Marte also slumped in August in both 2015 and 2016. He hit 312/363/442 over the season’s last six weeks. He even swung at significantly fewer pitches outside the strike zone compared to his career norms; that’s actually a two-year trend for him. So at least there’s some reason to think that Marte’s final numbers weren’t evidence of a real decline. His defense, at least according to UZR, hasn’t declined and neither have his base stealing skills.

So there’s a reasonable argument to be made for keeping the outfield together, at least for another year. There’s no guarantee that Cutch will avoid inexplicable slumps or weird knee injuries, or that Polanco will stay mostly healthy. In fact, you can just about guarantee the latter won’t happen. It’s certainly hard to believe Marte could get suspended again. I don’t think the Pirates can find the upside that this outfield represents anywhere else, so they’re best bet is probably to gamble that far fewer things will go wrong with this group in 2018.

What you can’t make a reasonable argument for is continuing the team’s everybody-plays-everywhere philosophy, which in practice means that you have infielders playing the outfield. That’s obviously terrible, because the basic definition of an infielder is a guy who doesn’t hit well enough to play the outfield. They have to be prepared, in particular, to replace Polanco if he either gets hurt or doesn’t produce. Playing some combination of Frazier, Osuna and/or Rodriguez for 100 or so games in the outfield doesn’t remotely qualify as being prepared.

Matt Joyce notwithstanding, I don’t really trust the Pirates to acquire a fourth outfielder from outside the organization because their determination to make every contract a bargain usually results in adding somebody like Ryan Church, Matt Diaz, Corey Hart or Nate McLouth 2.0. The Cardinals are able to use prospects as fourth outfielders and platoon players, and get great production in the process. I don’t understand why it’s verboten to keep, say, Jordan Luplow on the team with the idea that he’ll rest the starters regularly, start for a few days whenever Polanco gets dinged up, take over when Polanco or Marte goes on the DL, start at least some of the time against lefties, and get starts when Polanco just isn’t hitting. That should get him plenty of playing time. And Austin Meadows could play a similar role if he gets off to a much better start than he did this year, and doesn’t get hurt himself.