By Bob Nightingale
July 11, 2014
Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco (USATSI)
ST. LOUIS -- The Pittsburgh Pirates' outfielders might all be in their 20s, prefer Jay-Z to Marvin Gaye and driving a Mercedes over a Cadillac, but they sure are old school.
They play the game loud and flashy, but inside the clubhouse are quiet and modest.
They don't have a catchy nickname, slogan or motto, or even a T-shirt to merchandise in Pittsburgh.
"We don't need any of that stuff," center fielder Andrew McCutchen tells USA TODAY Sports. "We let our actions do all of our talking.
"We don't need anything else."
While the starting trio — 22-year-old rookie right fielder Gregory Polanco, 25-year-old left fielder Starling Marte and McCutchen, 27 — would prefer not to draw attention to themselves, their play is ruining any chance of anonymity.
"The outfield they've got over there," Miami Marlins general manager Dan Jennings says, "is the best, young, athletic outfield I've seen in 25 years.
"They are something special, boy."
Yes, we're talking about the days of George Bell, Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield with the Toronto Blue Jays in the '80s.
We're talking about Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom and Moises Alou with the Montreal Expos in the '90s.
We're talking about the Pirates' last star-studded outfield of Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke.
"These guys,'' Pirates manager Clint Hurdle says, "may be better. You can manage and coach your entire career, and not have the opportunity to work with three young players of this caliber.
"You can't help but dream and envision what they'll do. And they've got so much quiet confidence there's nothing they don't think they can do. I would never put a ceiling on them.''
Just how talented are these guys?
Their fourth outfielder, Josh Harrison, 27, was just selected to the All-Star team, joining McCutchen, a four-time All-Star and 2013 MVP.
It's not out of the question the three starters could all grace a Midsummer Classic - even as soon as 2015, in Cincinnati.
And in this era of baseball, with power hitters going out of style like Walkmans, they certainly form a nucleus capable of bringing a World Series to Pittsburgh for the first time since 1979.
You want speed? Defense? Contact? Patience? Athleticism?
The Pirates have three legitimate center fielders, all capable of hitting 20 home runs, stealing 30 bases and scoring 100 runs.
Scouts say that McCutchen has the most speed, by a step over Polanco and Marte.
McCutchen has the most power - at least until Polanco matures - with three big-league seasons of more than 20 homers.
Marte has the best arm, followed by Polanco and McCutchen.
And the best center fielder of the trio, scouts say, just may be Polanco, who stands 6-4 and weighs 220 pounds.
The best pure hitter? Depends on what flavor you want.
"Marte is more of a slasher, and can be a dramatic game-changer,'' Hurdle says. "McCutchen has turned into an MVP, and day in and day out, has good at-bats against elite pitchers. And Polanco has a selective, aggressive swing, the best I've ever seen in a young player.''
So pick your poison.
"No reason to stop there,'' catcher Russell Martin says. "I could see these guys all competing for the MVP award one year.''
Hey, with defense like this, no wonder they're the best friend of every pitcher on the staff.
"It's awesome to see the amount of energy they bring into the game,'' reliever Jared Hughes says. "Everyone knows it's the best outfield in the game, but the amount of hustle and hard work they bring really differentiates them from the rest of the league.''
And Polanco, the Pirates' most touted prospect since Bonds, distinguishes himself from every rookie in the National League. He set a franchise record with a hit in his first 11 games - including a five-hit game - and is batting .288 while scoring 19 runs out of the leadoff spot.
Not a bad month.
"I'm having a lot of fun,'' says Polanco, who received a standing ovation in his first at-bat. "It's everything I dreamed of. I just try to get on base, and every time I do, I want to score.
"What our outfield can do now is amazing.''
Polanco brings the same energy to the Pirates we saw when Mike Trout was called up to the Los Angeles Angels, Bryce Harper with the Washington Nationals, and Yasiel Puig with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Yet, there's one constant.
"The beauty of it is that we have a North Star in center field,'' Hurdle says, "and these guys can all draw to it and be magnetized from it. (McCutchen's) approach, day in and day out, the way he plays the game, the way he gets down to first base every night of the season.
"They know that they can't let up, or he'll show them up. Marte has drawn off that, and with Polanco showing up, Marte won't let people forget about him.''
Says Pirates bench coach Nick Leyva: "They'll deny it, but they want to be better than each other. So they just feed off each other.''
And the scary part?
They could be together a long time. McCutchen is signed through 2018, Marte 2021, and Polanco, who turned down a 10-year deal that would tie him to the Pirates through 2024, is under control through 2020.
"That's pretty cool,'' McCutchen says. "I'm sure it will give people a lot to talk about.''
Or to sit back, watch and enjoy.