By Rob Biertempfel
Published: Saturday, March 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates left fielder Starling Marte (right) talks with Gregory Polanco next to center fielder Andrew McCutchen Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.
BRADENTON, Fla. — Batting practice in the first few days of spring training rarely is viewed as a seismic event in the history of a baseball franchise.
Yet there was an air of electricity around Pirate City a few days ago when Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco picked up their bats and went to work. Some of the silver-haired fans watching at Field 1 that morning might have remembered feeling the same way the night John, Paul, Ringo and George belted out “All My Loving” on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Excitement about the Pirates' Dream Outfield of McCutchen, Marte and Polanco hasn't reached Beatlemania proportions ... but it's building.
“We're a small-market team, but they are big-market players,” said Rene Gayo, the scout who signed Marte in 2007 and Polanco in 2009 for a total of $235,000.
“Those guys are prototype players: They can run, hit and field,” Gayo said. “To have Marte and Polanco out there on either side of the National League MVP, that's a blessing for the Pirates. That's a hell of an outfield.”
In just his fifth season, McCutchen, 27, was the runaway winner of the MVP award after batting .317 with a .911 on-base plus slugging percentage. The center fielder is a three-time All-Star who owns two Silver Sluggers and a Gold Glove.
Marte, 25, is on the national radar despite playing in just 182 games in the majors. He homered in his first big league at-bat and had a .737 OPS as a rookie. Last season, Marte stole 41 bases and was one of three finalists for the Gold Glove in left field.
If he had more than two games' experience at the Triple-A level, Polanco, 22, would have come to spring training camp favored to win a major league job. He has hit at every level of the minors, including a combined .285 average and .791 OPS last season at High-A Bradenton and Double-A Altoona.
However, Pirates management prefers to bring its prodigies along slowly, smoothing out every wrinkle before pulling the trigger on a call-up. Polanco will open this season at Triple-A Indianapolis, but many scouts expect he'll be in Pittsburgh before the All-Star break.
When Polanco arrives, the Pirates could have their outfield in place for the next five years or more.
“They've got all the things that go with being good outfielders: good legs, good arms and pretty good judgment,” said Pirates special instructor Bill Virdon, a former Gold Glove center fielder. “I think Marte's got a little better (defensive) talent than the other two, but can he develop it? We'll see. I don't know that I've ever seen three outfielders have as much talent as they do.”
Is Virdon right? Could Marte-McCutchen-Polanco become the best outfield in Pirates history?
You don't have to look back too many years to find a contender for the title of best outfield: the 1990-91 unit of Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke and Bobby Bonilla.
“They were impact players on offense and defense, especially (defensively) in left and center with Barry and Andy,” said Mike LaValliere, who played on those NL East-winning teams. “When a ball hit the turf, it was like, ‘What happened? That had to have been a legit hit.' We were running our Nos. 3, 4 and 5 hitters out in left, center and right. As a catcher, I didn't have to be quite as smart calling pitches.”
Using wins above replacement figures calculated by Fangraphs.com, the 1990 outfield had a whopping 18.1 rating. Half of that total was produced by Bonds (9.9 WAR). In 1991, they had a WAR of 16.2.
The Pirates have had plenty of spectacular outfielders since the franchise was established in 1891. Paul “Big Poison” Waner and his brother Lloyd “Little Poison” Waner are Hall of Famers. Ralph Kiner was a prolific slugger from 1946-52. Fred Clarke and Ginger Beaumont were stars at the turn of the 20th century.
However, it takes more than one or even two great outfielders to form an epic outfield. When asked which Pirates outfield was the most complete collection of superstar talent, Manny Sanguillen reverently spoke three names:
Willie Stargell. Matty Alou. Roberto Clemente.
“They had dedication, and they loved the game,” said Sanguillen, who caught for the Pirates from 1967-76 and 1978-80. “Willie was slow in the outfield, but he had a great arm. Alou was the fast one. And Clemente was just special.”
The group played together from 1966 through 1970. Their best season in terms of combined WAR was 1969, when Clemente scored a 7.0, Stargell was at 5.2 and Alou was 4.4 for a 16.6 total.
Even in massive Forbes Field — which was 457 feet at its deepest point in left-center and 416 in right-center — Stargell, Alou and Clemente found ways to tame batters.
“Willie knew how to get to the baseball. He was smart,” Sanguillen said. “Clemente was amazing. He had such a great arm. If you were on second base and someone hit a line drive to right field and you took one or two steps off the bag, he'd pick you off.”
Now that Marte has started his big league career, it's fair to begin forming comparisons to Stargell. And with one MVP award already to his credit, McCutchen is arguably a better talent than Alou. But before Polanco has set foot on major league grass, is it baseball blasphemy to measure him against Clemente?
For now, yes. But if Marte-McCutchen-Polanco is truly to be the franchise's Dream Outfield, the right fielder must someday stand up to the Clemente litmus test.
“Part of scouting is to make comparisons,” Gayo said. “But when you say Clemente, everyone gets terrified. There's only one Clemente. Whether Polanco can become that type of player, the only ones who really know are God and Polanco. Does he have the talent to do the kind of things Clemente did? Yes. Will he? Time will tell.”
Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.
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