PITTSBURGH -- For the better part of nine years, the Pirates’ starting center-field job belonged to Andrew McCutchen. In two seasons after McCutchen was traded, Starling Marte started 265 of Pittsburgh’s 323 games in center. Then Marte, too, was traded.
Who is Pittsburgh’s center fielder now? It seems to be an open competition, and manager Derek Shelton isn’t even necessarily committed to having just one person claim the job moving forward.
“I like to have a malleable roster where we can go back and forth and do different things,” Shelton said. “If we have a guy that we’re going to throw out there every day like [the Twins’ Byron] Buxton or [the Rays’ Kevin] Kiermaier and you’re going to go after that, yeah, I’m all in for that. If not, we can rotate guys through.”
This year, the Pirates have done the latter.
Cole Tucker leads the team with 19 starts in center. Jarrod Dyson started 15 games there before he was dealt to the White Sox, and Bryan Reynolds has made 11 starts there over the past two weeks. Anthony Alford (three), Jason Martin (three), JT Riddle (two) and former Pirate Guillermo Heredia (two) have also started in center, and freshly called-up prospect Jared Oliva will get a start in center this week.
Let’s quickly look at the Pirates’ top four internal options to play center field at the start of next season.
Bryan Reynolds: Despite his struggles this season, Reynolds is still a prominent part of Pittsburgh’s young core. He’ll factor into the outfield mix somewhere next season, whether it’s in left field or center.
According to Baseball Info Solutions, Reynolds has totaled four Defensive Runs Saved in left field this year and two in center. Something else to consider: Reynolds would prefer to play center.
"I want to play center field. I really like center. I just think you get better reads, see better, and I really enjoy playing out there,” Reynolds said recently. "We haven't talked about next year at all, but I've enjoyed these however many games I've gotten in center. Just going to take advantage of it. Next year, whatever happens next year, happens."
Cole Tucker: So much of Tucker’s future still seems up in the air. The Pirates insist they still view him as a shortstop, but he’s played exactly three innings in the infield this season. He has spent most of his time in center and right field, and he’s totaled minus-6 DRS in his first exposure to the outfield.
Tucker has the instincts and athleticism to play just about anywhere, and he’s bound to get better with more than a couple weeks of on-the-job training. The question here is whether the Pirates choose to move Tucker back into the infield, which may depend on their offseason activity, and whether he’ll hit enough to lock down an everyday job.
Tucker is currently on the seven-day concussion injured list.
Anthony Alford: The Pirates really appreciate Alford’s athleticism and attitude, and they believe he hasn’t been given an opportunity to truly show what he can do in the Majors.
So they were excited when Alford started off 3-for-12 with a homer, a triple and four RBIs in his first five games for the Pirates, and they were saddened to see him go down for the season with a fractured right elbow while trying to chase down a home run in center.
But expect Alford, once a highly regarded prospect in Toronto’s system, to get another chance in Spring Training.
Jared Oliva: First, take a moment to appreciate Oliva’s journey to this point. He went from high school backup to walk-on at Arizona to MLB Pipeline's No. 10 prospect in the Pirates’ system after an excellent finish in Double-A to the big leagues. Through it all, he’s maintained his “walk-on mentality” and continually worked to improve.
The Pirates likely wouldn’t have called him up for the final week of the season if not for the upper back injury Martin sustained while hitting against Jameson Taillon in live batting practice on Monday. But while he’s here, he’ll try to prove he belongs.
Shelton said Oliva can play all three outfield spots, and he got the nod in left on Tuesday night. But he’s a natural center fielder with the speed to stay there. And Oliva believes he’s ready to stick in the Majors.
“I feel like from the defense, on the bases, in the box, I can bring a lot of different tools and assets that, like I said, we’re here to help the team win,” Oliva said. “It’s cool to make my debut and all that individually, but we’re here to help the big league team win. That’s the whole goal. That should be everybody’s goal.
“I do feel like I’m ready. But I’m excited for the failures, excited for the lessons, as weird as it might sound, because I know that’ll help me in the long run.”