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Pirates Exploring Different Outfield Alignments

In yesterday’s spring game, the Pirates tried an outfield alignment of Bryan Reynolds in left, Jack Suwinski in center and Andrew McCutchen in right. Spring Training is a natural time for teams to experiment, but it seems like this is something the club could consider for the regular season as well. “I think that’s something we could see, depending on what we do with ‘Cutch’ in terms of being on the field but I definitely think we could see Jack in center and Bryan in left,” manager Derek Shelton said, per Kevin Gorman of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “We saw, and we talked about last year that (Suwinski) became a better outfielder as the season went on at the major-league level. I think we’re going to continue to get a look at that.”

It seems this is something the players are all on board with, as they are all quoted by Gorman as supporting the potential plan. “I’ve talked with them and that’s going to be probably a mix of both, probably a little more left than center, I guess,” Reynolds said. “I think I grade out better in left, anyway, so that’ll be better for everybody. In the past, I’ve been good in left.” Center field is generally considered the most demanding of the three outfield positions, but PNC Park in Pittsburgh is a little unique in that the deepest part is actually in left-center.

Reynolds saw more time in left in 2019 and 2020 before spending most of his time in center over the past two seasons. The defensive metrics are a split on whether Reynolds is correct that he grades out better in left. Ultimate Zone Rating has generally not given him strong marks anywhere, while Outs Above Average thought him to be exactly average in left in 2019-2020 before a +10 in center in 2021 but then a -7 there in 2022. Defensive Runs Saved is the metric that is most aligned with Reynolds’ self assessment. It gave him a +7 in left over his first two seasons but a -19 in center over the past two. All three metrics were in agreement that he was subpar in center last year, with a -14 DRS, -2.6 UZR and -7 OAA.

Reynolds has been frequently the subject of trade rumors over the past few years, as he’s been playing at an All-Star level on a rebuilding team. A deal hasn’t come together yet with the Pirates apparently putting forth a huge asking price in any trade talks. Moving Reynolds from the premier center field position and into a corner potentially decreases his trade value, but with all the metrics souring on his work up the middle in 2022, perhaps there’s sense in moving him to the less-demanding position at least part of the time. Either way, his bat will still play, as he’s hit .281/.361/.481 for his career even with a nightmare showing in the shortened 2020 campaign. That production is 26% above league average by measure of wRC+, and he’s capable of more, producing a 141 wRC+ in 2021.

While Reynolds arguably fits better in left than in center, moving him to left will require Suwinski to be a viable option in center. That’s not a position where he has spent a ton of time, either in the majors or the minors, getting much more action in the corners. He did log 107 innings up the middle in the majors last year and was graded well, including positive grades from all three of DRS, UZR and OAA. Statcast placed his sprint speed in the 84th percentile but his jumps in the 42nd. These are small sample sizes but perhaps the Bucs feel that more reps at the position could lead to him being a viable candidate there, making this spring experiment a worthwhile path to explore.

Another issue for Suwinski will be his bat. He hit 19 home runs in just 372 plate appearances last year but also struck out in 30.6% of his trips to the plate. He’s generally been able to combine power and on-base ability in the minors, even with high strikeout rates, to be an above-average hitter. Perhaps he can keep that up at the big league level, but pitchers will likely be looking for different ways to attack him in his sophomore season and he will need to adjust.

As for McCutchen, he seems to be ticketed for right field, which he calls “the easiest position to play” at PNC Park. He’s the oldest of the trio at 36, but his sprint speed was still in the 90th percentile last year. He’ll be tasked with covering the smallest part of the outfield in Pittsburgh, though he will have to deal with the tall wall in right. “I’ve seen enough baseballs hit off that wall to know what balls may do and know the ones I’ve got to watch out for,” McCutchen said. “I know that when it goes above that fence (and caroms) off that little bit of wall there, I have to make sure I’m far enough away so I can get to it (because) that’s when you see those triples happen. They don’t happen a lot, but they happen. You do your best just to get the ball. It’s pretty simple. I don’t overthink it. I know what I’ve got to do.”

The Bucs have other outfield options on their 40-man, such as Ji Hwan Bae, Connor Joe and Calvin Mitchell and others, though it seems like this alignment with Suwinski heavily involved is at the forefront of their plans. “He’ll be fine doing it,” Reynolds said. “We’ll just work through it in spring, with him communicating in center versus me in center and getting to know each other in the new positions.” McCutchen also voiced his confidence in the plan. “Us having the understanding of who the center fielder is, what a center fielder does, we know that he has priority,” McCutchen said. “So, it’s me letting Jack know, ‘The ball is yours, regardless. When the ball goes up, it’s yours. If the ball is in the gap and I’m iffy on whether I can catch it, you should be catching that ball.’”

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