Pirates looking toward team speed in future
Turning over an entire outfield, especially one as productive as the starting trio the Pirates had in place early last season, is a gutsy move.
"It's been called worse than that," general manager Neal Huntington said, with a knowing laugh.
It was Huntington who pulled the trigger last July on trades which sent right fielder Xavier Nady to the New York Yankees and left fielder Jason Bay to the Boston Red Sox, respectively. About three weeks ago, Huntington dealt center fielder Nate McLouth to the Atlanta Braves.
In a span of just 11 months, Huntington gave the outfield a dramatic facelift. It reflects an offensive and defensive paradigm shift by the front office, which will affect the makeup of the roster for years to come.
The Pirates' new-look outfield is young, athletic and defensive-minded. The players will make acrobatic catches. They will rip hits into the gaps and race for extra bases. They will draw walks, steal and run-and-hit.
But they will not evoke memories of the Lumber Company.
Power hitters are hard to find — and expensive. The Pirates' plan is centered on young, affordable, home-grown players and a small-ball approach.
"Sometimes we can get caught up in home runs," Huntington said. "We love power, don't get me wrong ... but not at the expense of athleticism.
"We're looking for a balance of run creation and run prevention, not only today, but two, four, six years from now. We love power, but we believe in the bat over power. We believe in the base hit over power."
Last season, Bay, Nady and McLouth combined to hit 61 home runs for the Pirates. Up to the trading deadline, the Pirates had the most prolific outfield in the majors.
Most days this season, the Pirates start outfielders Nyjer Morgan, rookie Andrew McCutchen and Brandon Moss. They've combined for 12 home runs — in their careers.
Morgan, who'll turn 29 on July 2, and Moss, who's slump-prone, are viewed as placeholders. Perhaps as soon as next Opening Day, prized prospects Gorkys Hernandez and Jose Tabata — who both arrived via Huntington's big trades — will move into starting roles with the Pirates.
"Think about how many triples Andrew, Gorkys and Tabata have a chance to hit at PNC Park," Huntington said. "There are different ways to create runs."
When the Pirates drafted McCutchen in the first round in 2005, there was talk of him having the potential to hit 30 or more homers a year. However, he's never hit more than 17 homers in any one season in the minors.
"I get hits, but I can hit home runs as well," McCutchen said Wednesday after knocking his first career homer in Minneapolis. "I can run into some. If you make a mistake, I'll make you pay."
Hernandez has no power. But he has excellent speed and on-base ability, which will allow McCutchen to move from leadoff to a run-producing spot in the batting order. Tabata, who won't turn 21 until mid-August, is the best bet to be a home run source.
"As he develops, we expect Tabata to develop some pretty significant power," president Frank Coonelly said. "We haven't seen it over an extended season yet, but he's still a very young player. "
The three youngsters are considered defensive upgrades over Bay, McLouth and Nady. The runs they take away from opposing teams in the field could make up for the home runs they're not hitting at the plate.
"We've got to find balanced players, especially with (the spacious) center and left fields at PNC Park," Huntington said. "Most teams can just throw a guy in left field and live with it. We need our left fielder to be athletic."
The Pirates will have to find power from other positions. That's why it was crucial to draft hard-hitting third baseman Pedro Alvarez last year and lock up catcher Ryan Doumit to a multi-year contract.
"Tailoring a team to pitching and defense has kind of become the new trend," said Bart Given, a former assistant GM in Toronto. "I can see what the Pirates are doing."
Can the Pirates win with that formula?
"It's possible, but you've still got to find some power somewhere," Given said. "It might all rest on Tabata becoming more of a power hitter, and McCutchen being able to hit 15 or so (homers) a year."
For the past decade, the Pirates' single-season home run leader has been an outfielder:
Year: Player — HR
1999: Brian Giles — 39
2000: Brian Giles — 35
2001: Brian Giles — 37
2002: Brian Giles — 38
2003: Reggie Sanders — 31
2004: Craig Wilson — 29
2005: Jason Bay — 32
2006: Jason Bay — 35
2007: Jason Bay/Adam LaRoche — 21
2008: Nate McLouth — 26
Note: Wilson played 100 games in the outfield in 2004.