A look at the outfield contingent on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 40-man roster is likely to scare Pirates fans much more than it will scare the opposition.
Of the eight outfielders listed heading into spring training, only one of them – Bryan Reynolds – could be considered a quality everyday player. Ben Gamel, who appears ticketed for a starting spot in one of the corners, is the very definition of average, with an OPS+ of 100 in 2021. And none of the others can even measure up to that.
Which leaves manager Derek Shelton in a bit of a tight spot, since it takes three players to man a Major League outfield.
Reynolds, who had an outstanding rookie season in 2019, stumbled badly in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, hitting just .189 with a .632 OPS in 208 plate appearances. But he bounced back in a big way last season, slugging 24 home runs, driving in 90 and hitting .302 for a robust .912 OPS and an OPS+ of 146.
The 27-year-old switch-hitter, who also played a fine center field, is under contract through the 2025 season, and many Bucco fans are clamoring for ownership to sign him to a long-term deal that would make him the centerpiece of the club moving forward. I wouldn’t be opposed to that, but perhaps Reynolds will want to see how this whole rebuilding process shakes out before hitching his wagon to the Pirates for any length of time. And I wouldn’t blame him.
There was talk during the lockout that the club might be fielding trade offers for Reynolds, and I certainly wouldn’t fault them for at least listening. After all, look at the haul the Oakland A’s received for Matt Olson earlier this week. If Reynolds has no intentions of signing a long-term deal, and the Pirates could land a couple of top pitching prospects, maybe it would make sense to deal him now — rather than risk a slight downturn in his production — and continue to load up for when the next wave of prospects is ready to contribute in a big way.
As noted earlier, Gamel did nothing to distinguish himself, although he didn’t embarrass himself either. In an ideal world, Gamel would be a nice depth piece – a fourth or fifth outfielder – rather than a regular starter. But unless the Bucs make a move between now and the start of the season, he’ll likely be playing every day, although where remains a question that likely won’t be answered until Shelton figures out who Outfielder Number Three is.
Competing for Time
There’s no shortage of candidates – unfortunately, none of them will get your blood pumping. Greg Allen, claimed off waivers from the New York Yankees, could have a leg up on that spot, although perennial prospect Anthony Alford also is lurking.
Allen has appeared in 236 games over parts of five big league seasons but only 31 of those came in the last two years combined. In 48 plate appearances last season for the Yankees, the 29-year-old speedy switch-hitter batted .270 but is a .241 hitter with a career .655 OPS and a 75 OPS+ in 666 plate appearances.
Alford, who turns 28 in late July, won a starting outfield job at the beginning of last season, but went belly-up in a hurry, hitting .083 with 16 strikeouts in 24 at-bats over his first 11 games. That earned him a trip to Indianapolis, where he batted .307 with a 1.013 OPS in 226 plate appearances over 56 games before being recalled to Pittsburgh in mid-August. He fared much better over his final 38 games, batting .266 with an .805 OPS, homering five times and driving in 11 runs in 109 at-bats. But strikeouts remained a bugaboo, as he went down 42 times. Allen and Alford appear to be the front-runners for regular playing time
Swaggerty was the Pirates’ top pick in the 2018 draft, but he has appeared in only 12 games above High-A competition, and that came at the start of last season when he leapfrogged Double-A and was playing at Triple-A Indianapolis. Unfortunately for Swaggerty, he missed virtually all of the season after injuring his shoulder. Now 24, this could be a make-or-break season for the left-handed hitter.
Smith-Njigba, who turns 23 at the end of April and who came over from the Yankees in the Jameson Taillon trade, is another left-handed hitter who put up respectable numbers at Double-A Altoona. In 266 plate appearances, Smith-Njigba batted .274 with an .805 OPS, driving in 40 runs and stealing 13 bases. He also posted a .399 on-base percentage, drawing 45 walks.
Suwinski, who turns 24 in late July and was acquired from the San Diego Padres in the Adam Frazier deal last July, showed some pop with his left-handed swing, hitting a combined 19 home runs at the Double-A level and batting .262 with an .868 OPS.
Oliva remains on the 40-man but has yet to make an impression in the brief opportunities he’s had.
The Pirates have a couple of other players on the 40-man who are NOT listed as outfielders but might very well end up there. Cole Tucker, drafted as a shortstop, has found his way into the outfield the past two seasons, playing 14 games there in 2021 and 30 in 2020. A fine athlete, Tucker has yet to show he can handle major league pitching.
The other noteworthy name is Oneil Cruz. The World’s Tallest Shortstop is being given every opportunity to make it on the dirt, but it would not surprise me to see that experiment go sideways and the Pirates send Cruz to someplace more accommodating – the short right field at PNC Park. I realize he has much more value as a shortstop, and I don’t blame the club for running him out there every day in Indianapolis, even if he has to take his defensive lumps. But ultimately if he can’t handle the position – and Liover Peguero proves to be the real deal at short – it’s nice to know Cruz has a potential home in right field.
As for the the rest, Matt Frazier or an even younger prospect such as Hudson Head or Connor Scott are to be watched, as they’ll hopefully be knocking on the Major League outfield door eventually.