2012 Expectations: Center Field
Andrew McCutchen: The face of the franchise. As anyone who is reading this probably knows McCutchen is hands down the best player on the Pittsburgh Pirates. There is absolutely no reason not to expect another great season from him. In fact with a hopefully slightly improved offense around him his numbers should even be better. The sky is really the limit for McCutchen; it should surprise no one if he was to put up an OPS over .850 this season all while playing stellar defense in center field.
Brandon Boggs: The Pirates signed Boggs to a minor league contract this offseason and while I do believe it contains a clause that he can go to Japan if he doesn’t make the major league roster I expect him to spend at least some time in AAA. Boggs will be given a chance to make the major league roster but that seems like a remote possibility at this point. He can play any outfield position and will likely either serve as the starting RF or 4th outfielder (depending on where Lambo is placed). Essentially he will serve the role as the veteran OF in AAA who will only be called up in an emergency situation to cover a rash of injuries. So really not much is going to be expected of him this season.
Starling Marte: With all due respect to Josh Bell and Tony Sanchez, Starling Marte is the best position player prospect in the Pirates system. After putting up a strong season in AA in which he started to show a little power Marte will start this season in AAA and will face high expectations. He is still a little raw with some strike zone discipline problems that need to be corrected but Marte has the potential to be a McCutchen like outfielder. With the exception of plate discipline Marte does everything well and if he can fix that one last issue he could be in the majors as early as June but due to the Pirates rather strong outfield situation he will probably be given more seasoning in AAA. I am expecting a big season from Marte including a very solid major league debut in August or September.
Gorkys Hernandez: Hernandez is often overlooked in the Pirates system but he still as a lot of potential. He is the best defensive outfielder the Pirates have in the majors or minors and he has terrific speed; his problem is that he is a weak bat. Hernandez will probably be given a chance to win a bench role in Spring Training but the signing of McLouth greatly diminishes his chances. So he is likely to start off in AAA and with Marte there as well he will probably split time with Marte between LF and CF. At this point unless his bat greatly improves Hernandez looks like nothing more than a 4th outfielder but with his good speed and defense he can be successful in such a role. I am expecting Hernandez to have a solid season in AAA and get a chance in the majors at some point. He won’t have a great showing because of his bat but the rest of his tools will make the favorite for the 4th outfielder job in 2013.
Mel Rojas Jr: Rojas is another one of the Pirates fine outfielder prospects who has 5 tool potential. He was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2010 draft and while he hasn’t put up eye-popping numbers he has shown progress during his pro career. Rojas is very raw and is just a project at this point but he has a high ceiling and could become a very good major league outfielder one day. As far as 2012 is concerned Rojas will likely be the starting CF in A+ and since he will be playing in a good hitting environment this would seem like the logical year for him to take a big step forward and I expecting just that. Rojas should have a big year this season in A+ but I expect the Pirates to be conservative with him and leave him at that level basically all season.
Summary: The Pirates have no position that looks more set for the present and future than center field. Andrew McCutchen is a legitimate All Star in center field and will hopefully be in Pittsburgh for a long time to come. Should for some reason McCutchen not be in Pittsburgh long term the future still looks fairly bright with Starling Marte waiting in the wings. Having both of these guys in the same outfield would be amazing and hopefully we will see this some time this season. Outside of the strong duo of McCutchen and Marte the Pirates have great depth with Hernandez, Rojas and even some others I did not list. The immediate and long term future of the Pirates as a whole is uncertain but at center field it looks nearly as bright as it could possibly look.