COMMENTARY | Marlon Byrd played hero for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013, joining the team at the end of August and hitting .318/.357/.486 in 30 games, lengthening the Pirates' lineup and punishing pitchers with line drives lashed all over the field.
There was some hope that the Pirates might be able to retain Byrd next season, his PED suspension in 2012 and a career of mixed performance keeping his price tag down. But now that he has signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for two years and $16 million, the Pirates will need to focus on the options they currently have in house.
It's not necessarily a bad thing that the Pirates lost out on Byrd. While the adjustments he made to his swing allowed him to top 20 home runs for only the second time in his career last season, he'll still be a 36-year-old outfielder who hit only 260/.305/.358 between 2011 and 2012. And at his age, the downhill slope can come quickly -- only two of the Byrd's 10-most similar players as ranked by Baseball-Reference playing beyond the age of 36.
Unfortunately, the other free-agent outfielders on the market are just as flawed or too expensive for the Pirates to wade in. GM Neal Huntington has said that the team couldn't afford to give A.J. Burnett a qualifying offer of $14.1 million, so options like Nelson Cruz are out. And those that the Pirates could afford like Jason Kubel or Delmon Young have just as many flaws as the ones the Pirates already have in their system.
As for potential trade targets, the market is fairly bare, too. The Miami Marlins have repeatedly said they won't be trading Giancarlo Stanton, the No. 1 wish on many Pirates fans' Christmas lists. Even a player like the Chicago Cubs' Nate Schierholtz, coming off a career-best year with 21 home runs, could demand too high a price for someone who is best suited in a platoon role and in the final year of arbitration.
Fortunately, the Pirates have plenty of internal options, though none of them are concerns. Last year, before Marlon Byrd joined the team, Jose Tabata and Travis Snider combined to hit a pitcher-like .232/.297/.369. While Tabata is the current front runner for the position, the numbers are not as bleak as they may first appear.
Over the last two months of the season, Tabata hit .312/.357/.490 with 4 HR, the type of performance suggested by his former top 100 prospect status and the .746 OPS he posted as a 21-year-old rookie in 2010. While the power will probably never develop, and Tabata's defense is kindly described as adventurous, at the age of 25, it's possible Tabata is entering his prime.
They even have a potential platoon partner and additional power source in 25-year-old rookie Andrew Lambo. Lambo, originally acquired alongside James McDonald from the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2010, hit 32 home runs between AA and AAA, knocking out one more in 30 at-bats with the big league team at the end of the season.
Unfortunately, like the other slugger on the team, Pedro Alvarez, Lambo has a penchant for striking out, whiffing in 29% of his at-bats last season. Add Lambo into a lineup with Alvarez, who struck out in 30% of his at-bats, sixth-highest in the league, and the Pirates could generate a hefty breeze for the fans in the front row. If the Pirates were to platoon the two players, barring a breakout campaign, they could probably combine for something resembling league-average production.
Of course, both players are stopgaps for one of the Pirates' next great hopes: top prospect Gregory Polanco. The 21-year-old Polanco, loaded with tools, was the 51st-best prospect in the game coming into last season, and should only rise in rankings this year.
But 21-year-olds are volatile and while Polanco held his own in his first taste of AA (.263/.354/.407), he didn't exactly light up the league. Polanco is currently crushing the ball in the Dominican Winter League, and the team may hope he's ready for a midseason call-up, offering the same kind of boost that Jordy Mercer and Gerrit Cole did in their rookie seasons. But it wouldn't be shocking if he needed a full year of seasoning.
Last year, the Pirates were able to win 94 games even with a massive, gaping hole in right field for most of the season, thanks to an MVP-worthy campaign from Andrew McCutchen, great years from the rotation and bullpen, and 36 home runs from Pedro Alvarez. It would be foolish to expect everything to break right again, that injuries, regression, and plain old bad luck wouldn't rear its ugly head and so they'll need more production from whoever starts in front of the Clemente Wall.
Fortunately, this isn't 2006 when Jeromy Burnitz was the best option for the position. While there are plenty of question marks, the Pirates have three talented players to consider come spring training. Hopefully, one can step forward.
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