With Spring Training approaching, it's time for an in-depth look at the Pirates' roster. This is the sixth part of a series checking in on their current and future options at each position. Next up: the outfield.
Big question: Without Andrew McCutchen, what's next?
Early on this offseason, general manager Neal Huntington often said the Pirates' best team in 2018 would have McCutchen in center field. So what does Pittsburgh's immediate future hold without him? That's the overarching uncertainty facing a group with many individual questions.
• Around the Horn:C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B
Will Starling Marte return to form after a disappointing year and PED suspension? Will Gregory Polanco put it all together? Who's going to fill the other spot? Will Austin Meadows be healthy, and if so, when will he be ready for the Majors? A year after their lack of outfield depth was exposed, do the Pirates have enough?
The starters: Marte, Polanco and TBD
Marte should take over in center field. Despite the time he missed last season and his subpar performance after returning, the Pirates believe he can still be a star-level player at the plate, on the bases and in the field -- the same guy who averaged 5.2 Wins Above Replacement from 2013-16.
To succeed in this post-McCutchen era, the Pirates need Polanco to stay healthy after an injury-riddled season and take his long-awaited step toward stardom. If he ever has a full year like his first half in 2016 (.287/.362/.500, 12 homers, nine steals), he could anchor their lineup alongside Josh Bell.
Polanco has looked more comfortable in right field than left, so it would make sense to keep him there. As for the other corner? Veteran outfielder Daniel Nava, signed to a Minor League deal, could be part of the answer. Nava, who turns 35 this month, put up a .301/.393/.421 line with four homers, 21 RBIs and 26 walks compared to 38 strikeouts over 214 plate appearances during an injury-interrupted season with the Phillies.
The switch-hitting Nava has fared better against right-handers, posting a career .778 OPS against righties and a .341/.423/.474 line last year. Paired with their existing internal options, Nava could enjoy the kind of bounceback season Matt Joyce did as an extra outfielder in 2016 or potentially hold down the job until Meadows is ready.
Backing up: Jordan Luplow, Adam Frazier, Sean Rodriguez
Luplow, 24, destroyed Minor League pitching last season, slashing .302/.381/.527 with 23 homers in 117 games, then struggled in the Majors. The Pirates have suggested he might benefit from more time in Triple-A, but he could still have a role on the Major League roster as it is currently constructed. At the very least, the right-handed Luplow might help spell Polanco (career .591 OPS against left-handers) or Nava (career .589 OPS vs. lefties).
An infielder by trade, Frazier totaled two Outs Above Average -- more than McCutchen and Polanco in substantially fewer innings -- as an outfielder last season, according to Statcast™. He's not a power threat, but he has a history of hitting for average and getting on base. He and Rodriguez will bounce all over the field again this year.
Depth: Christopher Bostick, Todd Cunningham
Bostick played all three outfield spots in Triple-A last year and made one start in left for the Pirates. Cunningham, a non-roster invitee with Major League experience, will provide emergency depth in Indianapolis.
In the pipeline: Pittsburgh's system looked thin on outfielders a year ago, and it has improved through trades and the Draft. But it still starts with Meadows, who's one call away from Pittsburgh. If the top prospect is healthy and hitting, it shouldn't be long before the third outfield job belongs to him.
Jason Martin, acquired in the Gerrit Cole trade, could begin the season in Triple-A. Bryan Reynolds, half of the return for McCutchen, will report to Double-A after putting up a .312/.364/.462 line for Class A Advanced San Jose.
The Pirates also drafted a trio of interesting outfield prospects last year: Calvin Mitchell (second round), Conner Uselton (Competitive Balance Round B) and Mason Martin (17th round), a first baseman/right fielder who slugged 11 homers in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.
Another name to watch: Lolo Sanchez. The 18-year-old Dominican prospect impressed in the GCL, as he hit .284 with a .776 OPS, 14 steals and more walks (21) than strikeouts (19) while playing center field.