Better Outfield of the Future: Marlins or Pirates?

I know that I’m not alone in saying that one of my favorite parts about baseball is the projection of young players. In fact, I’d probably even say that I enjoy dreaming on what young players could be even more than I enjoy players for what they actually are. It’s one of the reasons I follow the Cubs and Twins (get well soon, Byron) as closely as I do the A’s and Dodgers. Obviously, it’s especially exciting when a group of young prospects on the same team all come up and meet expectations, as rare as that may be. To take it one step further, it’s just the best when all of that talent is concentrated in one positional group (pitchers, infielders, outfielders). So in an effort to combine my love of projection with what is currently happening on the field, I’m going to take a look at a couple of the most exciting young units in baseball.

Here are the top ten outfields as currently ranked by fWAR:

Screenshot 2014-08-14 at 9.08.00 PM

Of the top ten, only two teams are currently starting an outfield where all three players are 28 years old or younger. Now, it would be pretty funny if I said they were the Orioles and Blue Jays just to make you angry, but since you’re a person who ostensibly reads titles before you read articles, you know that these two teams are the Pittsburgh Pirates and Miami Marlins. Spoiler revealed.

Anyways, both young outfields are clearly extraordinarily talented. Each unit has an excellent case as the most promising outfield for the next five or ten years. That said, it’ll almost surely be a young outfield that exceeds them, because if baseball does nothing else, it destroys our expectations each and every season.

But focusing on the task at hand, the two outfields are very similar if you look at them in a certain arbitrary way. They each feature one superstar (Andrew McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton), a strikeout-prone “tools” guy (Starling Marte and Marcell Ozuna) and a skinny corner guy with all-star potential (Gregory Polanco and Christian Yelich). Now, those descriptions don’t really matter, but they’re interesting nonetheless. What does matter, however, is performance on the field.

The Pirates outfield has probably been the more hyped unit so far, and I think the majority of people would choose them to be better going forward as well. Their core three is currently the more productive, and they blow away the Marlins in production over the next four years, using the Oliver projection system.

image (5)image (6)If the projections turn out to be correct, the Pirates outfield is going to be, on average, 4.8 wins per season more valuable than the Marlins. But I have a couple of issues with these projections.

First, wow do they hate Marcell Ozuna. This is somewhat understandable considering Ozuna never was that highly regarded as a prospect, and some people thought that the Marlins were making a mistake by promoting him to the big leagues so quickly last year. But as he’s shown since his callup, Ozuna is actually pretty valuable. In only 70 games in 2013, he was worth 1.6 fWAR. In 2014, he’s been hitting for power and been worth nearly 2 wins with a month and a half left to go in the season. He’s not a perfect player (28.7 K%), but I think it’s fair to say that he’s not the borderline replacement level guy that he is projected to be right now.

My second issue is that I just can’t get comfortable projecting Gregory Polanco as a 5 fWAR player just yet. He’s obviously a top prospect holding his own in the majors, but five win players are really good. Only 19 position players were more valuable in 2013 than the 5.2 fWAR that Polanco is currently projected to reach by 2018. I certainly won’t be shocked if he reaches that level, but man, as fun as prospects are, sometimes they bust for no apparent reason. I’ll need to see a full productive season before I feel good about calling him a future MVP vote-getter.

Unfortunately for the Pirates case in this argument, the outfield fWAR top ten that I posted at the beginning of the article largely reflects the contributions of a player whom I have not mentioned thus far: Josh Harrison. At just 27 years old himself, Harrison has continued to be productive after what most assumed was just a hot couple of months. However, with Polanco now in the majors, it looks as though Harrison will be playing in the Pirates infield over the coming years, assuming all of the outfielders are able to retain their health. So it will likely be up to Polanco to replicate Harrison’s 2014 numbers (144 wRC+) going forward, a tall task even for someone as talented as he. Combine that with the possibility that Andrew McCutchen begins to decline upon hitting 30 in a couple years, and the Pirates outfield may not look quite as pretty as it does on paper at the moment (though it’ll still probably be really good).

Now, rather than continue to list reasons why you shouldn’t choose the Pirates, let’s talk about one final reason why you should choose the Marlins in our completely meaningless debate. Talent aside, the Marlins’ greatest advantage over the Pirates is their youth. Stanton is actually the oldest of Miami’s outfielders at the decrepit age of 24, while Ozuna and Yelich are 23 and 22, respectively. As a group, they certainly have the longest way to go to reach their ceiling, but they also have the most time to get there. And if you’re like me, you may be inclined to be on upside.

When choosing between these two outfields, there’s really no wrong option, as cliche as that may sound. They each have a combination of current production and future projection that we simply don’t see very often. Personally, despite all of the reasons I listed against them, I’m still inclined to go with Pittsburgh, but the choice is harder now than it was when I began this post. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. We’ll be able to sit back and enjoy both units, hopefully for the next decade or so.