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Pirates 2021 Season Preview: Outfield

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Pirates Outfield

It’s been customary for decades for Major League Baseball teams to put numbers on the backs of players’ uniforms. But when it comes to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ outfield for 2021, question marks might be more appropriate than numbers. That’s because uncertainty might be the best word to describe the Bucs’ outfield picture, given the recent – and not-so-recent – history of those who figure to man the three starting spots. And with just a few days before the season-opener, it’s still not clear who will be the top reserve. All of that should make for an interesting six months for the Bucs’ outfield brigade.

The likely starters

Bryan Reynolds

Minnesota Twins v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Which Reynolds will the Pirates get in 2021? The 26-year-old Vanderbilt product never hit less than .300 in his three minor league seasons in the San Francisco Giants organization after being selected in the second round of the 2016 draft. After the Pirates acquired him in the Andrew McCutchen deal in January 2018, he made his big league debut the following season and shocked most observers by competing for a batting title and ultimately hitting .314 with an .880 OPS in 491 at-bats.

More good things were expected of Reynolds last year, but he came back to earth with a thud, struggling to a .189 batting average and a .632 OPS in 185 at-bats.

So which Reynolds will be patrolling left field – and perhaps center now and then – in 2021? ZiPS Projections has Reynolds at .247/.733. Pirates manager Derek Shelton has said all spring that the switch-hitting Reynolds has always hit, no matter where he’s been (other than last season), so the best guess here is that he winds up somewhere in the .270 range with 15 to 20 home runs and 70-80 RBIs to go along with solid defense.

Would you take that over the course of a full season? I’d sign up for that, with the hope that 2022 might bring bigger and better things.

Gregory Polanco

Tampa Bay Rays v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

It’s a similar song for El Coffee – which version will surface this season? Polanco’s story is well-known – he was a heavily hyped prospect who reached the majors at the age of 22 and after a quick start, struggled to a .235 batting average and a .650 OPS in 277 at-bats.

He improved slightly in each of the next two years – he hit 22 homers and drove in 86 runs as a 24-year-old in 2016 — before falling off in 2017 to .251/.695. He was putting together a solid 2018 campaign before an awkward slide into second base left him with serious shoulder and knee injuries, and his 2019 season was mostly a lost cause.

Compared to his 2020 numbers, though, his 2019 campaign looked Ruthian. In 157 at-bats, Polanco finished with a .153 batting average and a .539 OPS, striking out 65 times in the process. That equated to a -1.0 WAR, according to Baseball Reference.

I’ve been a fan of Polanco, now 29, since first seeing that sweeping left-handed swing, but I’m no longer in his corner. I’m not sure I’m as down as the ZiPS Projections has him — .216/.693 in 380 at-bats, but I wouldn’t be surprised, either. The hope is that he can have a productive first half, and someone will take him off the Pirates’ hands.

Anthony Alford

Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

As of Monday morning, it appears as though Alford has won the battle for the starting center field job, beating out Brian Goodwin and Dustin Fowler.

Alford at one time was one of baseball’s most highly regarded prospects; Baseball America ranked him No. 25 overall and in 2016 had him pegged as the Toronto Blue Jays’ No. 2 prospect. But he never lived up to the hype north of the border, in part because he couldn’t stay healthy, and he was released last year.

The Pirates picked him up – GM Ben Cherington and his staff knew Alford from their time in Toronto – and promptly inserted him into the lineup. But he lasted just five games before fracturing his right arm.

Alford came into spring training camp this year with some restrictions on his throwing, but appears to be healthy now. He has held his own at the plate in Grapefruit League play – he was hitting .281 in 32 at-bats after Sunday’s game – and has shown great closing speed in the outfield.

He’ll turn 27 and, given his injury history, it makes sense to give him a full shot and see if he can turn his sizable physical skills into solid major league production. Here’s hoping he can stay healthy long enough to determine if he’s a player or not. ZiPS doesn’t hold out much hope; they penciled him at .218/.647 in 326 at-bats.

The rest

Dustin Fowler

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Pittsburgh Pirates Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Another former highly regarded prospect, Fowler was acquired from Oakland in late February in exchange for cash considerations after it was clear he would not stick with the A’s. The 26-year-old left-handed hitter has scuffled in Grapefruit League play, hitting just .194 with a paltry .531 OPS in 31 at-bats.

Fowler looked to be on the fast track while in the Yankees system, reaching the big leagues in 2017 after starting that season as New York’s 10th-ranked prospect. But a freak injury ended his season, and he was dealt that offseason to Oakland in the Sonny Gray trade.

Fowler never gained traction in Oakland, hitting just .224 in 2018, and he spent all of 2019 at Triple-A Las Vegas. Last year, he never made it to the majors. It doesn’t appear as though Fowler has done anything to distinguish himself in Bradenton, but he is out of options and that alone might enable him to go north with the club.

However, it’s likely Cherington and Co. will be watching the transactions list as teams try to pare down their rosters, and if a better outfield fit surfaces, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Pirates release Fowler and look elsewhere for outfield depth.

Phillip Evans

Pittsburgh Pirates v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Evans signed as a minor league free agent in December 2019, and the Pirates selected his contract in July 2020 from the club’s alternate training site in Altoona. Evans, now 28, looked like a feel-good story in the making, hitting .378 in 37 at-bats before a violent collision with Polanco in a game against the Tigers fractured his jaw and ended his season.

Evans has seen his share of action in Bradenton and again has looked strong at the plate, hitting .406 in 32 at-bats through Sunday’s game. He certainly has versatility on his side, having played first, second, third and short as well as left and right fields during his professional career. That versatility and his bat figure to give him a shot at sticking when the club heads north later in the week.

Don’t forget about...

Jared Oliva was in contention for an outfield spot, but he had an awful Spring at the plate, batting just .125, and was optioned to the minors last week. This was after underwhelming in his brief 16 at bats last season (.188). The team loves his speed and his capability in the outfield, however, so don’t be surprised if we hear more from him later in the season.

Brian Goodwin was thought to be in contention for at least a backup role, but after a weak Grapefruit League at the plate in which he struck out 13 times in 35 at-bats, he was optioned to the minor leagues this morning. He’s an experienced player that the Bucs could need in the event of injury or poor performance, so keep an eye on him.