With Andrew McCutchen now in San Francisco, the Pirates have a giant hole to fill in center field.
Austin Meadows is the obvious replacement, but injuries limited him to 81 games in 2017. He wasn’t particularly spectacular in that half season of work either, recording a wRC+ of 85 in AAA. He is not quite major league ready yet, and even if he was, the club would likely keep in the minors until June to get another year of pre-arb control. The Pittsburgh Pirates will not rush Meadows, and Neal Huntington insists he thinks his team can compete in 2018.
If that’s true and not just lip service, who should stand where #22 once stood?
Adam Frazier turned in a strong defensive performance in left field in 2017, but his bat faded once he became an everyday player. Jordan Luplow and Jose Osuna are the next candidates, but they profile better as right fielders, and Clint Hurdle has expressed a desire to keep Gregory Polanco in right. Sean Rodriguez could fill in, but if the Pirates fade from the playoff picture, they would be better off not giving the bulk of the starts to a veteran who is under contract for just one year.
That depth will take another hit if/when Josh Harrison gets his wish and is traded. If he is shipped out of town, Frazier would likely take most of the starts at second base (though Rodriguez and Max Moroff could assume the bulk of the playing time here instead).
But those replacements all assume that Starling Marte can provide high quality defense in center field. That’s not a given. While that may be his natural position, it would be a major downgrade for the defense as a whole. Since 2014, Marte has been worth 59 defensive runs saved in 3,572.2 innings in left and -5 in 550 innings in center.
Using the averages of those four years, if Marte was to play in roughly 1,250 innings in the field (or roughly 140 full games), he would cost his team about 12 runs in center or save 20 in left. That’s a 32 run swing. If you subscribe to the model that 10 runs equals one win, it’s three wins.
The plan for the Pittsburgh Pirates the last couple years has been to grow their young pitching and compete with them. Why make their best glove play out of position?
What Dyson Can Bring
With that said, can I interest you in one slightly used Jarrod Dyson?
23 outfielders played at least 750 innings in center field in 2017. Dyson ranked fourth in defensive runs saved with 10. Since 2014, he ranks sixth among all outfielders with at least 2,000 innings with 58 DRS.
A few months ago, I looked at what part of the team needed an upgrade the most. The outfield defense was worth -14 DRS, 23rd in baseball. By simply swapping out McCutchen’s -14 runs and adding Dyson’s 15 from last year, the Pirates would have been sixth in baseball last year. (Again, using 10 runs per win, this is another three game swing). With a full season from Marte and a healthy Gregory Polanco, they could be one of the best in baseball.
Sure, there is no way Dyson can match McCutchen’s bat, but he can duplicate the speed. He’s swiped 204 bases in his career and has an 84.6% success rate. If the Pirates aren’t going to hit homers, they need to play small ball well. Dyson plays small ball.
Dyson is likely holding out for a two-year deal, and that should not scare the Pirates away. It is a very similar situation to what brought John Jaso to town. Dyson can start until Meadows is ready, and then he can bounce between the other three positions once he becomes a bench player. He’d be an overqualified backup.
The 2012 Pirates went from a 70-something win team to the playoffs by emphasizing defense. The 2016 and 2017 Pirates got away from that. While losing McCutchen is a major blow for the offense, it’s an opportunity to replace their worst defensive player and go back to a formula that has worked.
Photo credit – Keith Allison – Flickr Creative Commons