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The Debut of Gregory Polanco Marks the Beginning of a New Era in Pirates Baseball
Pittsburgh Pirates 2014
Speed at every outfield position
The debut of Gregory Polanco marked a transition for the Pirates, as they now have three outfielders who all played centerfield early in their professional careers, and could be considered five tool talent when they all reach their prime years. Over the past few seasons the Pirates have had success when their pitching was strong, but now they have reached a point where they have more dimensions to their team identity. Strong outfield defense should allow the Pirates to continue their impressive run prevention, which adds to the amount of ways that they can win games on their schedule. All three of these outfielders possess speed and power, so it will be interesting to see the development of the Pirates offensive approach to stealing bases. While having three outfielders on the same team, with this much raw talent may be unprecedented, the Braves showed last year what can be done by adding players like the Upton brothers to a team that already has an all star outfielder like Jason Heyward.
A shift in team identity
Last season the Pirates had the third lowest team earned run average in all of baseball, but this season things have changed. They currently have the 17th ranked earned run average in all of baseball, which is also 12th in the National League. However things have changed for the better offensively, after the Pirates struggled to score as much as four runs per game in 2012 and 2013. The Pirates currently are scoring about four runs per game, and each year during the summer months their offense typically picks up the pace some. Before Greg Polanco's debut on Tuesday, they were batting .252 as a team with a .327 team on base percentage. All of these are team best marks for the Pirates since 2008 before they conducted the fire sale that started their most recent rebuilding effort. Over the past two seasons, the Pirates biggest offensive threats were their number three and number for hitters in the lineup. Centerfielder Andrew McCutchen produced back to back MVP caliber seasons while third basemen Pedro Alvarez produced back to back 30 or more homerun seasons. With Polanco's debut, hitting homeruns becomes somewhat of a secondary item for the Pirates offense, as the Pirates outfielders as a group become the new focal point of their offense. This shift in team identity has already led to more success offensively for the Pirates this season, and should continue to do so as the Pirates will look to great hitting ability as well as speed on the base paths to their advantage.
What about the pitching?
Early on this season the Pirates pitching depth has been tested, and their pitching staff as a whole has been hurt by inconsistency. With this in mind, the Pirates now have three young starters who fit their pitching philosophy, and are getting a look currently in the big league rotation as replacements for injured starting pitchers. The Pirates pitching staff will look to round into form as the summer approaches, and with the backing of a strong defensive outfield, they have a great chance to do just that. The Pirates team pitching philosophy for their starters, is to try to get quick outs by getting the ball put in play on the ground. While nearly every pitcher in the Pirates starting rotation makes use of groundball pitches, mistake pitches that are hit in the air can be converted for outs with strong defense behind them. With top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon down for the season with elbow surgery, the Pirates have turned to the trio of Brandon Cumpton, Jeff Locke and Casey Sadler to provide them with quality rotation depth. To this point all have mastered the triple-A level and appear to belong at the highest level of professional baseball, most notably with Jeff Locke having made an all-star game appearance in 2013. Run prevention from a very athletic outfield should help the pitching staff to find more consistency throughout the rest of the 2014 season.
Beyond 2014, the Pirates pitching staff of the future looks very promising if Jameson Taillon is able to make a complete recovery from Tommy John surgery. Taillon is now likely to make his major league debut in June or July of 2015, and his arrival would mark the addition of a potential ace to the Pittsburgh staff. Taillon is nearly a finished product in terms of his minor league development, which allows the floor of his potential to be approximately a number three starter at the big league level, and the ceiling of his potential to be a number one starter. Joining Taillon in the Pirates rotation next June could be Pirates fifth ranked prospect, right handed starter Nick Kingham. Like Taillon, Kingham is also a tall right handed pitcher with a great fastball, but due to not having a plus pitch besides the fastball, his ceiling is lower than Taillon's. Kingham is also a nearly finished product in terms of his minor league development and is currently pitching at the triple-A level for the Pirates farm system. The floor of his potential is likely to be a number four starter, while his ceiling would be to become a major league number two starter. By adding two hard throwing, potential top of the rotation starters next season, the Pirates are in very good position to maintain a strong pitching staff well into the future.
A new precedent for Major League outfield play
With Josh Harrison currently getting playing time at second base, the Pirates now have four players in their lineup that have the speed to steal a base nearly every time they reach safely. This gives the Pirates an opportunity to become more of a running team on the base paths, which can really add another dimension to a team's offense. While the Pirates are unlikely to lead the league in stolen bases at this point, the extra base hit totals that their outfielders have been producing this season, give them a reason to avoid risking outs on the bases. Of the three outfielders, Starling Marte is the most likely to try to take off for second each time he reaches first base safely. Marte stole 40 bases in 2013 and Andrew McCutchen has stolen more than 30 bases in a single season before in his career, but he has not run much since being moved to the third spot in the Pirates lineup full time. Polanco stole plenty of bases in his minor league career, but he picks his spots and does not look to run every time. Ultimately it will be the extra base power provided by all three of these outfielders, that provides most of their offensive value. Having three outfielders with the athleticism of the Pirates trio is hard to match, and even when the Braves were able to put together an outfield with three centerfield caliber athletes, only two out of the three were able to produce offensively at an all star rate.
With Starling Marte being only 25 years old, Greg Polanco being 22 years old and Andrew McCutchen just entering his prime, we are unlikely to see the Pirates outfield trio reach their full potential together this season. In the coming seasons though, this group of outfielders for the Pirates could become the best outfield in baseball. The power hitters on the infield for the Pirates will still be counted on to contribute, but in the near future most of the Pirates star power will be in their three outfielders. The Pirates transition from a one dimensional team to a team with so many dimensions, may not result in a huge boost in the regular season win column, but it is more likely to result in postseason success. Ultimately the Pirates have been building for this moment for six years now, and they finally have the right combination of talented outfielders roaming the grass at PNC park.