Pittsburgh Pirates outfielders Starling Marte (left) and Andrew McCutchen (middle) and Gregory Polanco (right) wait out a pitching change against the Philadelphia Phillies during the sixth inning at PNC Park, July 4, 2014.(Photo: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport)
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Two longtime scouts are sitting in the stands of McKechnie Field on a balmy spring training morning. Their fun debate: Which team has the best young outfield in baseball?
"I'll take the Pirates," he says. "The center fielder [Andrew McCutchen] might be the best player in baseball. And the upside of the left fielder [Starling Marte] and the right fielder [Gregory Polanco] is off the charts. Both those guys could be anything they want to be. If all the upside of those two comes out, nobody can match that."
The best young outfield in baseball. Roll that around your brain for a minute. But then wonder about this: Is it possible the Pittsburgh Pirates are about to trot out the best anykind of outfield in baseball?
Correct answer: Extremely possible.
McCutchen -- a top-three MVP finisher three years in a row. Marte -- a fellow whose .975 second-half OPS was the fourth best in the National League (behind only Stanton, Anthony Rizzo and Buster Posey). And Polanco -- whose minor league numbers over the past three years compute to .310/.375/.482, with 94 stolen bases tossed in there just to make your eyes throb.
"Potentially," says a third scout, "you're talking about three perennial All-Stars."
Three perennial All-Stars? So we're talking Bonds/Bonilla/Van Slyke then? Or Clemente/Stargell/Alou?
Well, whatever names you're talking, if that's where these three guys are heading, you're talking something special.
"I'm just happy to be out there with them," says McCutchen. "Hopefully, we can all make a lot of history together."
So what separates this group from the pack? How good are they now? How good are they going to be? Let's look closer.
The center fielder
Do you really need us to tell you what a spectacular player Andrew McCutchen is already, at age 28? Maybe this will sum it up: Only two men in the whole sport have ripped off three straight top-three MVP finishes since 2012. One is Mike Trout. The other is McCutchen.
Listen to Pirates outfield coach Rick Sofield talk about what he thinks places McCutchen in a category where only the great players belong:
"At home plate, I'm not sure you'll find a more fierce competitor, pitch to pitch," Sofield says. "I have not seen him, in my three years with this club, give an at-bat away, you know, where he's not feeling well, he's not seeing it well, or somebody has thrown a pitch where it's easy to surrender. I've never seen Andrew do that.
"So that's a God-given ability. That competitive fiber is something that doesn't get measured anywhere but in the clubhouse with a bunch of ballplayers. It's hard to see that, and he's got that.
"The great players, they compete within themselves. We're talking about the [Michael] Jordans, the [Derek] Jeters. As you watch those great ones, I don't think it's the opponent as much as it is themselves, to push themselves ... to keep working and dominating the things they can control, and relax within that environment. And that's what Andrew has done."
The left fielder
Starling Marte has played two full seasons in the big leagues. Here are three numbers on his stat sheet from those two seasons: 25 home runs, 71 stolen bases, a .349 on-base percentage. You know how many other players in the major leagues have had that many homers, that many steals and an OBP that high over the past two years? None.
#6 Left Fielder Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Statistics
Not to mention that Marte is an impact defender who finished fourth in the Fielding Bible voting in left field and "would be a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder," says GM Neal Huntington, if McCutchen hadn't already cornered that gig.
But it was really in the second half of last season, when Marte came off the disabled list following a concussion hiatus, that he tweaked his swing and his approach, exploded to have a .348/.408/.567 finish and gave his team an extended taste of the multidimensional star he can become. And Sofield believes there is even more there.
"I don't know if that means more statistically," Sofield says. "But is there more there to become a situational expert? To learn more about the game? To learn more how to handle the bumps and the moguls that go on in the game? Absolutely. ... I think that's where he's going emotionally. And I think that's what's in him situationally."
The right fielder
How good can Gregory Polanco be? Let's give you an idea. When the conversation turns to this outfield, Polanco is the first name his general manager mentions -- and then says Polanco might have the highest ceiling of them all. Which means, if we're reading Neal Huntington's inner thoughts correctly: potential MVP candidate.
Not that the GM can possibly say that now, because Polanco is still only 23. With just 277 major league at-bats' worth of experience and, clearly, a ton of work ahead of him. But ... Andrew McCutchen was that guy once, too, remember.
"As you looked at Andrew at 22-23 and you look at Polanco at 22-23, you can think some big thoughts on Gregory," Huntington says. "Now Andrew is a guy who has continued to work hard and continued to push his ceiling higher. So that's probably not a fair comparison.
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesExpectations are high for the 23-year-old Gregory Polanco, who played in 89 games for the Pirates last season.
"But at 22, people didn't look at Andrew and say he was going to be a perennial MVP candidate," the GM goes on. "At 22, people thought he'd be a really good player and maybe an All-Star. ... But now you look at Polanco, and you see he's a guy who can run, who can field, who can hit, who can hit with power. And you feel like, if we're able to help him, you could see some All-Star Games in his future."
The "help" part of that equation is a big one, though, because Polanco learned last year that the big leagues are a whole different playground than he was used to. Through his first 16 games, after a June call-up, he was hitting .338/.416/.441. But in the 73 games that followed: .201/.272/.311. Ouch.
Once the league adjusted, and fed him a diet of soft stuff and sinkers down and away, mixed with hard stuff in on the hands, Polanco got confused and overmatched. But he seems stronger now, and not just because he put on 15 pounds of muscle.
"It was a good experience for me," he said of his second-half troubles. "Now I know the league, how they pitch me and how the game is up here. And I feel like if you work hard, it's going to pay off someday."
Well, if it pays off the way the baseball world expects it to, watch out. At 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, Polanco is one of the biggest men on the field -- but also one of the fastest. And he already has one of the best arms in the sport. So this is a man with freakish tools.
"It's Magic Johnson playing point guard," Sofield says. "I mean, who does that? Where do these guys come from? This is a unique situation."
The whole toolbox
Is there another outfield in baseball that features three guys who are all legitimate five-tool players? Not just now, either. To find one, you'd have to go back many, many years.
Feel free to nominate one. We've looked at groups like Tim Raines/Andre Dawson/Ellis Valentine in Montreal, Willie Mays/Bobby Bonds/Jim Ray Hart in San Francisco, Lloyd Moseby/Jesse Barfield/George Bell in Toronto. We're not sure any threesome we've studied could legitimately make a case for having all five tools.
But this group can. Just check out the power/speed component alone.
McCutchen has spun off four straight seasons of 20-plus homers and 18-plus steals. He's the only player in baseball who has. Marte is working on two straight seasons of 10-plus homers and 30-plus steals. Only he and Carlos Gomez have done that. And if you combine major league and minor league numbers, Polanco has had three consecutive seasons of 12-plus homers and 30-plus steals. The only big league player who can say that is Gomez.
So we're looking at an outfield in which all three starters are coming off a string of seasons with 18 steals or more and double figures in homers. Did you know there have been only eight outfield trios that have done that, in the same season, in the entire live-ball era? Andno team has ever had three outfielders do it two years in succession.
But these guys could. They're all in their 20s. They're all under team control at least through 2018. So they could conceivably do this for years.
"Typically," says third baseman Josh Harrison, "you just don't see an outfield with three guys that can all run the way they can run and can all change a game with one swing of the bat."
Yep. And we just documented it. Meanwhile, when you hand them a glove, "all three of them are center fielders," says one of the scouts who kicked off this debate. "So defensively, I don't think there's any outfield that can top them."
And if that's the case, ask yourself this: What can't they do? What can't they be?
Maybe the Marlins are ahead of them right now, because all three of their outfield studs have been there, done it in the big leagues. But in a year? Two years? Four years? It's hard to imagine any team will field an outfield better, more gifted or more charismatic than the outfield that's about to take the field in Pittsburgh.
"So it's exciting to be around," says Rick Sofield. "I'll tell you that. And whatever expectations that are given to them, they're going to meet them. They want to meet them. None of them is afraid of what's being said, or the possibilities. So you know what I think? I think they're looking to prove everybody right."