Sunday, February 15, 2009

Who's The Opening Day Left Fielder?

For the next few weeks, we'll probably be going a little heavy on Pirates stuff. Obviously, I'm not going to do anything crazy like ignoring the Pens (I'll have scatching posts about them if they keep up the terrible play from last night), Pitt hoops (I certainly won't ignore one of the top teams in all of college hoops), and the Steelers offseason. But I feel like I've written so much about them at this point that I'm repeating myself half the time. So instead of that I'll be turning my attention to dissecting and making predictions about the 09 Pirates.

Here is my first go at it, trying to gauge who will and who should win the opening day left fielder job:

Taking a look at the Pirates roster right now, its not hard to gauge who 8 of the 9 starters will be when the Pirates open the season April 6 in St. Louis so long as there aren't any injuries. Paul Maholm is a near-lock to be the ace, Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Nate McLouth and Brandon Moss are locks to start at their respective positions and Andy LaRoche, though technically in competition, would have to go 0-for-Spring Training to lose the 3B job I think. So that leaves us with just left field.

Externally the Pirates are saying that right now they are fine with Nyjer Morgan starting in left field on Opening Day and that they have faith in him to get the job done. I don't believe that for a second.

I also think that this is the season we finally see the legendary Andrew McCutchen wearing a Pirate uniform beyond March. I'm not yet sure whether he can be the opening day guy (we'll examine that more in a bit) but I do think he'll be in left field (I think he'll start in left for at least this season before transitioning to center in the future) by season's end.

The Candidates: Nyjer Morgan, Eric Hinske, Andrew McCutchen, Craig Monroe, Jeff Salazar and Steve Pearce

So let's break these guys down one-by-one:Nyjer Morgan: I've never been much of a Morgan fan for any number of reasons, but to be fair to the guy, he has outperformed expectations for years and has been better in his limited everyday duty than I ever thought possible. In his 267 at-bats over two seasons the numbers have been pretty solid. Morgan has batted .296 with a .351 OBP. He's never going to be much for slugging, but he did manage a surprising 13 doubles last season thanks at least in part to his incredible speed. In the mostly punchless Pirates lineup, more powerful alternatives have to be at least considered. However he will be 29 in July and we've seen the most his skills can possibly offer us. He also is average as a fielder. Sure he may have made some crazy highlight reel catches over the past two seasons but too often he takes bad angles or delayed angles on fly balls and has to use his speed to make up for it. His arm is nothing special, either. That speed does allow him to be at least a solid fit in the spacious left field at PNC as he can cover more ground than alternates like Hinske or Monroe. His speed also doesn't pay as many dividends on the base paths as it should, as he has had some issues sliding into base and is just 16/24 on steals, a percentage that is below an effective level at the major league level.

Eric Hinske: Hinske was the top signing this offseason for the Pirates (Yes I rank him definitively above Ramon Vazquez) but was tagged mainly as a backup when signed. Hinske would be a power upgrade in the Pirates lineup. He is coming off a 20 home run season for the Rays in just 381 at-bats. Coming from the left side, he could easily crank 25+ in PNC Park's friendly confines. But there is also a reason why he has bounced around the last couple seasons. He has had some issues with low batting averages, high strikeout rates and mediocre OBPs and has big-time consistency issues. He also is less than special as a left fielder. In PNC Park that is a major strike against him. That's not to say he'd be a huge liability out there, but prior to 2008 he'd spent much more in the infield than the outfield, and he was mediocre as an outfielder for Tampa.

Andrew McCutchen: Cutch has long been considered the top prospect in the Pirates farm system, and even with the addition of Pedro Alvarez this past fall, Cutch is definitely the most proven commodity in the organization's minor leagues. He is a definite 4-tool prospect and many scouts think that the power will come around in time for him and making him a top-notch, 5-tool MLB star. The ceiling for this kid is superb and there is no question that at some point, most likely this season, he will be manning PNC Park's outfield. But there are many who think McCutchen has been a bit rushed by the Pirates to this point (though by Dunce Littlefield not by Huntington and company) and that he needs more time in AAA. His numbers last year in Indy were good, but not yet great. It probably wouldn't hurt to get him at least another couple months to gain confidence in Indy before he is given the big call. It's not as if this team is poised to win right now. Waiting til June or even later to bring Andrew up isn't going to hurt anyone and is probably the smart move. Plus waiting until that point would enable the Bucs to push the dates for McCutchen's arbitration back a whole extra season, similar to what Tampa Bay did a year ago with Evan Longoria.
Craig Monroe: Similar to Hinske, Monroe has a better power stroke than most of the players on the Pirates current roster. He has a very good shot to at least make the Opening Day Roster, but its more likely to be as a reserve. The big concern with Monroe have been steps backward. He strikes out an absolute ton, as well. The Batting Average, and as a result the OBP, have both been pretty crappy the past two seasons as well. I think Monroe could be a solid reserve and give the Pirates right-handed power off the bench, but as a starter I don't see any way he is a better option than any of the aforementioned players, even the still untested McCutchen.

Jeff Salazar: At age 28, Salazar's resume as a major leaguer includes just 275 at-bats and 4 home runs. Not what you'd want to see from a supposed power hitter. Last season with Arizona he struck out an alarming 41 times in 128 at-bats and batted just .211, though his OBP checked in at a solid .331 considering how low the average was. He also hasn't has a slugging of just .375 in his Major league career. Again not what you want from a guy who is supposed to pack an at least solid power punch. As a left off the bench, he probably has very little shot of making the roster considering his similarities to Hinske. As a starter, that shot is probably zero.

Steve Pearce: In 2007, Pearce took the minor league world by storm thanks to a 31 home run season across 3 different levels and was so good he even made it to the majors for 68 at-bats at the end of the season. 2008 brought a somewhat predictable crash back to earth. He was disappointing in AAA with just 12 home runs in 386 at-bats. He did find something of a power stroke at the major league level finally, with 4 home runs in 104 at-bats. Not a great ratio, but at least it was something. Pearce will be 26 on the date of the Home Opener, so he isn't as young as your typical prospect, but the power potential he has displayed makes him at least worth a look. What is also a negative against Pearce is that he is, at best, a mediocre outfielder. And that's probably being kind considering he has spent most of his career being hidden at first base. Pearce figures to be matched up with Craig Monroe for the role of a reserve power righty on the bench. Despite the disappointing 08 I don't think its wise to totally discard Pearce yet, but I think it is time to start viewing him more as a power bat off the bench instead of a potential starter. Putting him down in AAA likely won't do much for him, so unless Monroe is clearly the better player in Spring, I think Pearce should be heavily considered for an Opening Day Bench role.

The Best Solution: Eric Hinske is the best fit for this Pirates lineup right now. He has the power that would make him pretty unique on this roster and would look pretty good batting sixth behind Adam LaRoche, Ryan Doumit and Brandon Moss. That's not to say Hinske would get all the starts. Certainly Nyjer Morgan can prove effective at times and will get some playing time, and against tough lefties either Craig Monroe or Steve Pearce (whoever makes the roster) should be in the lineup. But Hinske is the best all-around choice. The assets that Morgan brings to the table (namely speed and ability to cover the outfield better) is outweighed by the large need the Pirates have for power. Of course both of these guys will only be holdovers until Andrew McCutchen proves himself ready in AAA. The bet here is that comes by June 15.

What Probably Will Happen: I think management's confidence in Nyjer Morgan is a little foolish, but I also think their emphasis on defense will end up with Nyjer Morgan playing left field on April 6, not Hinske. Again, no matter how much they like Morgan they have to be ready to shove anyone aside if McCutchen is tearing through AAA like they expect him to.

1 comment:

Jonathan Bryant said...

Do you really think Hinske is the solution here? I mean come on! The guy strikes out a ton, and while he did add some power to the Rays lineup last season he has had some truly awful years. I know Nyjer isn't exactly a top-notch prospect, but similar things were said about McLouth. I think Morgan deserves a shot.