Pirates' search for a starting center fielder could have Bryan Reynolds feeling left out

Kevin Gorman, The Tribune-Review, Greensburg
·5 min read

Mar. 6—Bryan Reynolds calls center field his natural position, claims he gets truer reads off the bat and has the most fun there because he gets more chances to run down fly balls and make diving catches.

With an open competition in center this spring training, it's only natural to wonder why the Pittsburgh Pirates don't consider Reynolds the easy choice to play there.

The answer, like the outfield at PNC Park, is complicated.

The Pirates' home field has difficult dimensions for outfielders to deal with, from the 410-foot North Side Notch in left-center to the 21-foot Clemente Wall in right.

"We've got a tricky outfield," Reynolds said. "Left-center is really deep. Center field, too, you've got to deal with that same notch as left field. Then in right field, you've got that big wall."

Despite a 325-foot left field line and a 6-foot wall, playing left field at PNC Park is no picnic. The left-field power alley is the deepest of any park in baseball, so there's a lot of ground to cover. Playing balls off the notch and 10-foot wall by the bullpen are challenging.

"It's like you have two center fielders out there because of all the room to deal with out in left-center," Reynolds said. "Left field at most parks is fairly short so you don't have much room to deal with. Left field at our place, you know a ball driven in a gap you've got a chance to go get it. You have a chance. Center field is fairly normal at our spot, except when it goes back towards that notch. It's just being athletic and making adjustments on the fly."

Brian Goodwin, a nonroster invitee to spring training, only has played at PNC Park as a visitor but believes the ballpark has earned a reputation as a difficult place to play for outfielders in the National League.

"For the most part, everybody's wary of that left-center field," Goodwin said. "We all know balls can go out there, and they can keep going for a long time and get lost. So you're always aware of that."

The Pirates also are aware of Reynolds' desire to play center, his position at Vanderbilt and in the minor leagues. He has played 41 games in center over the past two seasons, including 16 last year, compared to 111 in left and 31 in right.

In center, Reynolds has shown a flair for making both diving catches and throwing out runners at the plate. On Sept. 5, 2019, he robbed Magneuris Sierra and Lewis Brinson of the Miami Marlins with diving grabs in the same game. A year later, on Sept. 8, he gunned down Nick Madrigal of the Chicago White Sox at the plate in his first start of the season in center. Reynolds has proven he can play the position.

The Pirates, however, also see Reynolds' value in left field.

"You put him in left field, to me, he's a Gold Glove defender, period. I don't see anyone better than him," said Pirates first base coach Tarrik Brock, who instructs the outfielders. "He goes to his right well, can cut off, throws the ball very well and he can go back on it. The coolest thing about him, he makes a play, whether it's a great play to save a game or just a routine play, you'll never know the difference between the two. I think that's a good thing, for him and for us."

The Gold Glove talk is not hyperbole, either. Starling Marte won two Gold Gloves in left in 2015 and '16 before moving to center, and Corey Dickerson won the Gold Glove in left for the Pirates in 2018.

Since trading Marte to Arizona in January 2020, the Pirates have started Reynolds, Jarrod Dyson, Guillermo Heredia, Cole Tucker, JT Riddle, Jason Martin, Anthony Alford and Jared Oliva in center. This spring, they signed Goodwin to a minor league deal. This past week, they experimented with shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz in center for the first time in his pro career. They also traded for Dustin Fowler, who can play all three outfield positions but said center field is his favorite.

The Pirates have made finding a future center fielder a priority in drafts, international signings and trades. They drafted center fielder Travis Swaggerty with the No. 10 overall pick in 2018, but he's yet to play above Single-A. They signed Australian 16-year-old Solomon Maguire for $534,000 in February 2020 and gave a $2.35 million bonus to Shalin Polanco of the Dominican Republic, the top international outfield prospect, in February. The Pirates added another center fielder, 19-year-old Hudson Head, from San Diego in the Joe Musgrove trade. Head is ranked their No. 6 prospect by Baseball America.

The Pirates know what they want in center field, even if they haven't found it. Or, more appropriately, he isn't quite ready yet.

"When we talk about center field here," Brock said, "one thing we want to have is a guy who has command, presence — he's like the quarterback out there — and be able to cover ground, to be able to read pitches a little bit better, because he has a clearer shot at home plate than the left fielder or right fielder might have."

That doesn't exclude Reynolds from the mix in center field — even if the Pirates appear to believe he is best suited for staying in left, in part because of the way he plays the position at PNC Park.

"To say it doesn't factor at all probably is not true," Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. "We'll play the matchups more so than we'll factor the ballpark in. But the fact that he's comfortable in left field at PNC plays into it. It's a challenging place to play with the way that the nook and cutout is. Some of that will have to do with the personnel we have on the field. Some of it will have to be the situation of the game or who we're facing or those things. But I feel comfortable with him at both spots."

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at kgorman@triblive.com or via Twitter .