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What can Heredia bring to Bucs’ table?

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MLB: JUL 17 Pirates Summer Camp Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Pirates were hoping for a big bounce-back season from their former golden boy prospect Gregory Polanco, but those hopes were put on hold – at least temporarily – last week with the news that Polanco tested positive for COVID-19. So, with one of their top power threats sidelined for the time being, the Bucs have had to scramble to put together a semblance of a respectable outfield.

There’s no problem in left field, where Bryan Reynolds showed a year ago that he could more than hold his own in the big leagues, challenging for a batting title until a late-season cool spell chilled those chances. But the forecast for the remaining two outfield spots are not quite as clear. It appears as though Jarrod Dyson, the former Kansas City Royal, will get the bulk of the playing time in center field, but it’s right field – Polanco’s erstwhile position – that seems to be up for grabs. In Saturday night’s exhibition opener, the Pirates started Guillermo Heredia in right and had him hit ninth in the batting order. Heredia didn’t embarrass himself; in fact, he accounted for the club’s first two runs by taking a Zach Plesac offering back through the box and into centerfield to drive home a pair of runs.

If the 29-year-old Heredia does seem to be the club’s choice to fill in while Polanco recovers, it makes sense to learn a little more about him. Admittedly, all I knew about him until yesterday is that he signed a big-league deal with the Pirates in January, a month after the Tampa Bay Rays non-tendered him.

The 5-foot-10, 195-pound Heredia, one of the rare non-pitchers to hit right-handed and throw left-handed, spent just one year in Tampa Bay and his offensive stats were less than impressive. In 204 at-bats, which he garnered in 89 games, Heredia put together an OPS of .668, but he showed much better against left-handed pitching, as he charted an OPS of .795 in 114 at-bats.

Heredia came to the Rays from Seattle, the club that originally signed him out of Cuba in 2016, in November 2018. He accompanied catcher Mike Zunino and minor league pitcher Michael Plassmeyer from Seattle, and the Mariners received center fielder Mallex Smith and outfielder Jake Fraley.

Heredia, a former member of the Cuban national team and the center fielder for the team that competed in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, spent parts of three seasons in Seattle, where he appeared in 293 games. In 770 at-bats, Heredia registered an OPS of .657, hitting 12 home runs and driving in 55 while building a .244 batting average.

He began playing professionally in Cuba as an 18-year-old in 2009 and – according to Baseball America — built his reputation on his speed and defensive prowess, as he was a multiple Gold Glove winner in his native land. He was said to have a strong arm and plus speed, although that came from a scouting report that was written in 2016. The same report also said that teams questioned whether he could hit well enough in the major leagues.

He basically went two years without playing – 2014 and 2015 – before signing with Seattle, and he spent time in both Double-A Jackson and Triple-A Tacoma in 2016. He compiled a .781 OPS at Jackson and .791 in Tacoma, earning himself a recall to the big-league club, where he batted .250 in 92 at-bats. He spent all of 2017 in Seattle, hitting .249 with a .652 OPS in 123 games (386 at-bats) but twice was sent down to Tacoma during the 2018 season. That year, he finished with a .236 batting average in 292 at-bats for the big club.

There’s no telling how much we’ll see Heredia in right field this season; perhaps Polanco will be back relatively quickly and Heredia will go back to fulfilling the role the club envisioned when it signed him in January – that of a fourth outfielder, spelling Dyson in center or Polanco in right against left-handed pitching. The more I learned about Heredia, the more I could see why GM Ben Cherington thought it made sense to bring him aboard during the offseason. To me, he’s an upgrade over Pablo Reyes, and while his offensive talents aren’t on par with Melky Cabrera, who saw plenty of action last season as a spare outfielder for the Bucs, he’s a definite defensive upgrade. I’m interested to see what he does in the abbreviated 2020 campaign.