While the Atlanta Braves’ outfield is widely considered the best outfield in all of baseball, the combination of age, contracts and volatility in talent makes the Pittsburgh Pirates’ outfield competitive with that of the Braves.
The first comparison is with the best outfielder in each outfield. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates and Justin Upton of the Braves are both on six-year deals, worth about $51.5 million. From 2009 through 2013, Upton has been worth 17 WAR and McCutchen has been worth 21.2 WAR. That is a difference of about one win per season, which is a relatively significant difference in this range. McCutchen is signed through 2017, with a club option for 2018, and Upton is signed through 2015. Though both are bargains in their current state, Upton will be due for a raise sooner. Upton will be a free agent after the season he turns 28, likely still in his prime. He will move from about $8.5 million average annual value to something more than twice that. When McCutchen is a free agent in 2018, he will be age 32. He will likely get a substantial raise on the open market, assuming that he continues this level of production, but it may be a victory if he prices himself out of the Pirates’ range – as those long contracts beginning when a player is already in his 30s often are highly detrimental towards the back end. The Pirates win this matchup, as McCutchen is slightly better and slightly more valuable from a contractual perspective.
The second comparison is one that is much less favorable for the Pirates. The Braves’ Jason Heyward is a budding superstar who is just entering his arbitration years. He would earn something around $15-18 million average annual value, but he will be a significant bargain for the 2013-2015 campaigns. The Pirates’ Starling Marte has shown glimpses of his potential, but he is likely a few years away from reaching anything near Heyward’s level. Though Marte has more years of team control, he needs those years to possibly progress to close to Heyward’s level. In terms of trade value and immediate talent, Heyward wins this comparison.
The third outfield spot is a fascinating comparison. The Pirates are currently playing Travis Snider in their third outfield spot. He is a post-hype prospect who is still under team control. He has shown glimpses of a plus bat, while his glove looks to be average in right. With a .310 career OBP, Snider has obvious room for improvement. The Pirates also are hopeful about prospect Gregory Polanco. Though Polanco may not end up in center – because McCutchen will own that spot and Polanco’s glove may not play there – but his bat will play in a corner spot. Between Snider, Polanco, and platoon abilities for third and fourth outfielders, the Pirates have value and potential in their third outfield spot. The Braves utilize B.J. Upton. While Upton’s struggles have been well documented, there is little chance he sustains this level of horrific performance. Upton is in year one of a five-year, $75 million contract. Upton will not continue to make the contract look like the albatross is does currently, but it will likely be an overpay until its conclusion in 2017.
In its current state, it is hard to argue that any outfields have more natural talent than that of the Braves. However, when factoring in value and contracts, the equation is slightly more balanced. Currently, it seems that Heyward’s superiority over Marte negates B.J. Upton’s detrimental contract. However, if the Pirates see progression from their cost-effective options, they could get enough production to make their outfield more valuable than that of the Braves.
Gabe Isaacson is a writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @gabeisaacson.