Other than Bryan Reynolds, there wasn’t much to smile about concerning the state of the Pittsburgh Pirates outfield in 2021.
Reynolds, who burst on the scene as a rookie in 2019 and competed for a batting title for much of that season, rebounded from an absolutely miserable sophomore year to reestablish himself as perhaps the club’s most valuable asset in 2021.
Originally figured to be the everyday left fielder, as he had been for most of his first two seasons, Reynold moved over to center when neither of the team’s previous center field hopefuls – Anthony Alford or Dustin Fowler — panned out.
All Reynolds did was play near Gold Glove-caliber defense in center while giving the team consistently solid offense in the form of a .302 batting average, a .390 on-base percentage and a .522 slugging mark for an OPS of .912 and an OPS+ of 146. Reynolds hit 24 home runs, drove in 90 and tied for the league lead in triples with 8.
Fans would love nothing more than to see the 26-year-old Reynolds locked up long term, but whether that happens remains to be seen. He’s certainly young enough to still have value by the time the next wave of real Pirates prospects is ready to compete in the NL Central, which could be 2023 or 2024, in my estimation.
Beyond Reynolds, though, no Pirates outfielders struck fear in the heart of any opponent’s pitching staff.
Of the 16 other players who appeared in at least one game in the outfield, only Ben Gamel held his own, although fellow newcomer Yoshi Tsutsugo flashed much-welcomed power after joining the team in mid-August, hitting 8 homers and driving in 25 in 144 plate appearances.
The 29-year-old Gamel played hard and put up respectable numbers — .255/.750 with eight homers and 26 RBIs in in 383 plate appearances
The much-maligned Gregory Polanco saw action in 92 games as an outfielder and batted just .208/.637 before being released late in the season.
Other than those three, no Pirate played more than 39 games in the outfield in 2021, and that honor went to Alford.
Alford, you might recall, made the team out of spring training and played in 11 games in the month of April. But he failed miserably, hitting .083/.325, and wound up in Triple-A Indianapolis before earning a recall in mid-August. From that point through the end of the season, Alford hit a respectable .266/.805 with five homers and 11 RBIs, but he still struck out at an alarming rate – 42 times in 119 plate appearances.
Others who saw action in the Pirates outfield in 2021 included Ka’ai Tom (31 games), Phillip Evans (30), Jared Oliva (18), Cole Tucker (14), Wilmer Difo (12) and Hoy Park (9).
It’s anyone’s guess as to who will man the corner outfield spots on Opening Day in 2022. I like Gamel, but I’d like him even more as a fourth outfielder. Alford’s K numbers are frightening, although maybe with the modest success he had this season, those numbers will drop a bit.
Some fans indicated they’d like to see Tsutsugo re-signed as a free agent, given the paucity of power the club has, but I’m guessing he’ll be an attractive piece to other clubs that might be more willing to pony up and pay him. I don’t see him returning for that reason.
Assuming Ben Cherington and Derek Shelton give Alford one more shot at tapping his considerable physical talents and Reynolds returns as expected, that still leaves right field. I’ve already lobbied multiple times for the Pirates to simply hand Oneil Cruz the keys to right field at PNC Park, but that stance hasn’t been all that popular with those who say he has yet to prove he can’t play shortstop in the big leagues. I understand that argument; his value certainly would be higher if he could play satisfactory defense at short and display his prodigious offensive skills. I just don’t think he can last at the position – and with Liover Peguero a few years behind him, a move may have to come eventually anyway.
I’ve also heard from those who would like to see the Pirates land a free agent outfielder or acquire one in a trade, but I don’t see Cherington making a splash move, given where the club is in its rebuilding process. He may be content to go with the status quo, assuming Tsutsugo returns, and hope that Travis Swaggerty – sidelined most of the 2021 season after shoulder surgery — can show the skills that made him the club’s top pick in the 2018 amateur draft.
Swaggerty appeared in only 12 games at Triple-A Indianapolis before he was hurt and batted just .220/.728, although three of his nine hits did leave the yard.
There’s always the chance that someone could come out of nowhere, too. Matt Fraizer did that at the minor league level this year, rocketing through High-A with gaudy numbers and then posting an .848 OPS at Double-A Altoona. The 2022 season may be too early to expect Fraizer to arrive, but if he continues to progress the way he did this season, it wouldn’t be out of the question to see him at PNC Park by the end of next year.