The case for Jordan Luplow making the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Opening Day roster

With Andrew McCutchen gone, an outfield spot has opened up on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ active roster. As a result, Jordan Luplow should make the Opening Day roster.

Before the 2017 season began, Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Jordan Luplow had never played above the High-A level of the minor leagues. After beginning the season in Double-A and ending the season in Pittsburgh, Luplow finds himself as the Pirates No. 23 prospect on entering the 2018 season.

Luplow climbed the minors and put himself on the radar with an impressive 2017.

The 24-year old didn’t light the world on fire once he got to the majors, but he had his strong stretches. During a span of seven straight starts from Sept. 2-8, Luplow collected at least one hit in every game and posted a slash line of .308/.357/.615 and smacked two of his three major-league home runs.

Now, Luplow looks to earn an Opening Day roster spot with the Pittsburgh Pirates and, frankly, he’s worth a shot.

Building for the future

Forget what management says: the Pittsburgh Pirates cannot contend in 2018 with the makeup of their current roster. No returning players from last season had a WAR greater than 2.6 or a WRC+ above 108.

It’s time to focus on not 2018, but 2019 and beyond. If it wasn’t evident when Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole were traded that the Pirates aren’t focused on 2018, the fact that they’ve all-but-named Colin Moran the starting third baseman should. Moran has all of 37 MLB plate appearances to his name.

That Luplow lacks in MLB experience shouldn’t matter in 2018 if players like Moran are given starting time.

He wasn’t on the Pirates’ top prospect list prior to 2017 season, so he could have exceeded his talents. Recall Steve Pearce, who rose from High-A to Pittsburgh in 2007. It was a remarkable jump, but Pearce essentially flamed out and was gone by 2012.

The problem is, Pearce was never given an extended look. From 2007-11, he never had more than 186 plate appearances in a season with the Pirates. For someone who hit a combined 37 home runs and slugged over .500 in four of his five seasons with Triple-A Indianapolis, Pearce never got the extended major league stint that he deserved.

The Pirates shouldn’t make the same mistake with Luplow. He should get at least 200 plate appearances in 2018, barring major injury.

Battling to back up

With Andrew McCutchen gone, the Pittsburgh Pirates have extra space in the outfield for the taking. Starling Marte will take over center and Gregory Polanco remains in right, but left field is up for grabs. Adam Frazier is the presumable starter, but he may not play their all the time since he can also play second base.

As a result, a fourth outfield spot could be a significant contributor. At first, Pirates fans might be suspecting Jose Osuna to get this chance since he spent far more time in the majors than Luplow did than in 2017.

Osuna did prove himself worthy with his bat, as he hit seven home runs and posted a .438 slugging percentage in 227 plate appearances. However, he struck out in 17.6-percent of his plate appearances and only walked 4-percent of the time.

Additionally, Osuna struggled in the outfield defensively. In 25 games as a right fielder, Osuna posted a -2.5 Ultimate Zone Rating and -9 Defensive Runs Saved. Osuna was better in left field, but in a smaller sample size. In 14 games, he posted 1 DRS and a 2.3 UZR. There remains potential that he could get in as a backup there.

That’s not to say that Luplow was some fantastic fielder either as he had -2 DRS and a -2.5 UZR in 181 innings in the outfield. The difference is that Osuna spent 2017 learning the outfield after moving up through the organization as a first baseman. Luplow has been there his whole pro career. Osuna’s future is not in the outfield and thus he should be used as a backup at first.

Limited depth

After Osuna and Luplow, the outfield options are few and far between. Sean Rodriguez is an option, but he doesn’t seem to be the true second-in-line at any position. Rather, he is meant to be ready to play anywhere whenever needed.

As a result, Luplow has a fair chance to move into a regular role. With nothing at stake in 2018, it’s best for the Pirates to figure out what kind of player Luplow is.

Was 2017 a fluke? Did he rise to the majors too fast? It’s trial by fire, but with how many young players the Pirates will send out to the field in 2018, some of them will have to endure paths like this.

Joel Norman

Joel Norman is a journalism major at West Virginia University. In addition to writing for Pirates Breakdown, Joel covers WVU sports for the Daily Athenaeum and writes game recaps and features for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Joel also does play-by-play broadcasts of WVU hockey and baseball for WWVU-FM in Morgantown.