By John Perrotto
When considering the Pirates’ outfield, the first place to look is in the middle.
Andrew McCutchen will enter his first full major-league season as the starting center fielder after making a fine debut last season when he was named the Major League Rookie of the Year by Baseball America despite not getting called up from Class AAA Indianapolis one-third of the way through the season.
He had a very un-Pirates-like .365 on base percentage, slugged .471, hit 12 home runs and stole 22 bases in 108 games. He had a three-home run game and a walk-off shot against the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies.
McCutchen is undoubtedly the most excited talent to come on the Pirates’ scene since all-time home run king Barry Bonds made his debut in 1986. McCutchen has speed, developing power and a presence and determination that belie the fact he is just 23 years old.
He, and top third base prospect Pedro Alvarez, are undoubtedly the cornerstones of a rebuilding process the Pirates hope finally restores the franchise back to respectability after 17 consecutive losing season.
Left fielder Lastings Milledge doesn’t have quite as much talent as McCutchen but he isn’t too far behind. Milledge has power and speed, though he hasn’t shown his full potential yet while playing in the major leagues with the New York Mets, Washington and Pirates. A broken finger suffered early in the season at Class AAA sapped his power last season but Milledge says he is fully healed and ready to start hitting home runs.
Milledge came to the Pirates with the reputation of being a head case. However, McCutchen became fast friends with the fellow Floridian and Milledge has turned into one of the most likeable guys in the Pirates’ clubhouse. That says something about Milledge and even more about McCutchen.
Garrett Jones, the Pirates’ biggest surprise of 2009, will be the right fielder, though he could shift to his natural position of first base if Jeff Clement fails to win the job this spring. Jones had .372 OPS and a .567 slugging percentage in 314 at-bats as a rookie last season to go with 21 home runs 10 RBIs.
It is easy to write Jones off as a one-year wonder since he is 29 but he has a good approach at the plate and plenty of raw power, so he could be a productive player for a few years, even if his chances of stardom are remote.
If Jones is needed at first base, Ryan Church is first in line to become the starting right fielder after being signed as a free agent. The left-handed hitting Church kills right-handers and hit 15 home runs as a regular with Washington in 2007. If nothing else, he is a solid Plan B if the Pirates need him to play semi-regularly.
Brandon Moss had plenty of chances to be the everyday right fielder in 2009 and blew them all as he hit .204 or less in four of the season’s six months. While it would seem he atop the pecking order to become the fifth outfielder, a number of factors work against him.
He can only play center fielder in a pinch and he bats left-handed like Church. Moss is out of minor-league options, so the Pirates will try hard to trade him this spring.
Delwyn Young is in the same boat as Moss in that is out of options, can’t play center fielder and missed his big chance to play every day when he hit .155 in his final 103 at-bats last season as the starting second baseman. The only difference is Young hits right-handed and could interest other clubs to trade for him because of his ability to deliver as a pinch hitter.
John Raynor, selected in the Rule 5 Draft from Florida, shapes up as the likely fifth outfielder despite having no major-league experience because. What works in Raynor’s favor is his ability to play center field.
The Pirates could play Milledge in center in a pinch if something happened to McCutchen but they would prefer not. Raynor is fast and considered a good defensive player, though some scouts wonder whether he will hit at all in the major leagues.
Brandon Jones and Jonathan Van Every have outside chances of making the club in spring training.
The Pirates claimed Jones off waivers from Atlanta. He fell out of favor with the Braves as his power began to stagnate last year at Class AAA Gwinnett. Jones is also considered a below-average defender, who will be limited to left field.
Van Every saw limited major-league action with Boston early last season then suffered a knee injury at Class AAA Pawtucket and underwent season-ending surgery. General manager Neaal Huntington is familiar with Van Every from his days as the Indians’ farm director as Van Every began his career in the Cleveland system.