Posted on February 5, 2017 by Bryan Zarpentine

Pittsburgh Pirates Outfield

Image via usatoday.com

A move that has been speculated and rumored since the end of last season is now official. On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Pirates announced a change in their outfield alignment for the 2017 season. The move will include Starling Marte taking over for Andrew McCutchen in center field, McCutchen moving over to right field, and Gregory Polanco moving from right field to left field. The team released a statement from manager Clint Hurdle on its Twitter account Sunday to announce the changes.

“After a detailed evaluation, various considerations and many conversations, we have discussed with each of our outfielders the defensive alignment that we will employ. That alignment will be Gregory in left field, Starling in center and Andrew in right. We believe this alignment will maximize our outfield production. Our men were very professional and respectful respectful of the team and each other throughout the process, and are selfless in helping us strengthen our team defensively.”

Hurdle’s statement implies that all three outfielders have signed off on the changes, so there will be no surprises when they report to spring training later this month. Defensively, the Pirates were one of the worst teams in the majors last season, according to Fangraphs, so it’s not surprising to see Pittsburgh shake things up in an effort to improve in that department following a disappointing season in 2016.

The primary reason for the shakeup appears to be putting Marte in center field while moving McCutchen to a corner spot. Marte has been one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball since breaking into the majors in 2012. He’s been among the league leaders in defensive runs saved during that time, yet his talents are somewhat wasted in left field. McCutchen, meanwhile, is starting to show subtle signs of aging, as the former MVP turned 30 in October. At this stage in his career, he can’t quite cover as much ground in center field as he used to.

McCutchen was the topic of trade rumors just a couple months ago. Coming off the worst offensive season of his career, the Pirates appeared to make an effort to trade him, albeit with a rather high price tag. At one point, a trade involving McCutchen seemed almost inevitable, but a deal never got done. The Pirates have publicly stated that they are comfortable entering the season with McCutchen still on their roster, even after all the trade talk.

Of course, if the opportunity to do so presents itself, the Pirates could still consider trading McCutchen at some point in 2017. McCutchen has said in the past that he’d like to spend his entire career in Pittsburgh if possible. However, the presence of prospect Austin Meadows could inspire the Pirates to move McCutchen elsewhere, especially now that he’s already been moved away from center field, his defensive home for his entire career. Meadows, who profiles as a left fielder, is the second best outfield prospect in baseball, according to MLB.com, and should begin the 2017 season in triple-A.

In the short term, realigning their outfield with Marte in center field should make the Pirates stronger defensively. It also positions, intentional or not, Marte to be the team’s premier player and the face of the franchise, replacing McCutchen in both respects. So while the outfield alignment has been changed to help the Pirates win games in 2017, it can also be seen as a sign that the team is preparing to part ways with McCutchen, perhaps sooner than expected.

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