Matt Joyce had a down year in 2015, but his history as a starter in the outfield could make him the Pirates’ best fourth outfielder option come Opening Day.
The final signing of the Pirates’ off-season might have happened last week when the team signed outfielder Matt Joyce to a minor league contract. The move wasn’t a major one, but it may have filled one final need the Pirates had before heading into spring training: the fourth outfielder position. He’ll be competing with Sean Rodriguez, Jason Rogers, Mike Morse, and Jake Goebbert for playing time, and to be the primary outfielder off the bench come Opening Day. Out of the available choices, is Joyce the best option the Pirates have for that role?
I’d argue yes. As a fourth outfielder, a player is the first option off the bench to give either Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, or Gregory Polanco a day off, and would also be used as a pinch-hitter and possibly a late game defensive replacement. Joyce has by far the most major league experience in the outfield (5163.0 innings) compared to the next closest in Morse (3061.2) and Rodriguez (662.1). He also has a higher career WAR at 9.0, the next closest being Rodriguez at 7.3. He’s the only one of the group to be an All-Star may be arguably the best overall offensive player of the group (Morse has more power, but has fallen off since his career 2012 campaign).
Obviously spring training performance may play some part in determining if Joyce makes the Opening Day roster, but let’s eliminate a few of the other players from what we know now. Goebbert hasn’t played in the majors since 2014 and was barely an offensive presence in that time, batting .218/.313/.317 with just one home run and 10 RBIs across 101 at-bats. He’s more than likely going to start the year in the minors and be one of the first options to be called up if an injury should occur to an outfielder or a first basemen. He’s also more of a first baseman than an outfielder, and his lack of major league experience compared to the others works against him. Morse is going to be one half of the platoon at first base and will see most of his time there. Morse could compete for time in the outfield when Jaso starts at first, but his spot on the team won’t take away a potential spot from Joyce. His role as a first basemen also won’t make him the primary fourth outfielder option, but more of a alternate option.
Jason Rogers is intriguing option, but he has such limited experience in the outfield (14.1 innings in the majors and 590.2 innings in the minors) that he’s a better option as a corner infielder than as an outfielder. He also only has 161 at-bats in the majors, and while he’s been successful in that time, it’s still a small sample size; that’s not ideal as a fourth outfield option for a playoff contender if a better option is available.
I believe this spot will come down to Sean Rodriguez vs. Matt Joyce. Rodriguez was used in that role frequently last year, and while he may be a better late game defensive replacement, Joyce seems like the better overall option to start on a day off for one of the starters. If Rodriguez is kept to an infield role and used as a late-game defensive replacement rather than as a starter in the outfield or as a pinch-hitter, the Pirates will be better off. Joyce has a better offensive history as a starter in the outfield, and if the Pirates can work their reclamation project magic with Joyce like they often do with their pitchers, the Pirates could have a quality fourth outfield option for the first time in a while.