What do the Pirates have in Alex Presley?

After last night’s three-hit performance, Alex Presley is hitting .294/.333/.464 with four homers, 12 doubles, and six triples in 51 games (226 plate appearances) as a Pirate in 2011. This is pretty good in general and while it’s not great for a corner outfielder, it’s not bad either. It’s downright spectacular on a Pirate team that’s been almost entirely devoid of offense this year. If we use wRAA, the same stat I used when talking about Ryan Doumit last week, Presley’s been worth about as much to the Pirates’ offense in 2011 as Garrett Jones has in roughly half the plate appearances. 

The problem, of course, is that nothing Presley does in 2011 actually matters because the Pirates are miles out of contention. Pirate fans always have to ask “What will you do for me tomorrow” instead of “What have you done for me lately?” and so we have to consider what Presley’s really capable of instead of what he’s doing. 

Two years ago, Presley was finishing off his second year at High-A at the age of 23 with a miserable line of .257/.305/.379 in Lynchburg. He moved up to Double-A anyway in 2010 and tore up the Eastern League in 67 games, hitting .320/.399/.533, then moved on to Indianapolis where over the equivalent of one full season (156 games between 2010 and 2011) he hit .316/.371/.474 with 33 doubles, 11 triples, and 14 homers. It’s been a pretty remarkable turnaround and there’s no question that he’s made some big strides in his plate approach and that he’s a much better player than he was when he was stagnating in High-A in 2009, but how good is he?

What worries me is that he’s had a late rise through the minors, playing mostly old for the levels he was at, and a lot of his production has been driven by high batting averages. His walk rate at Double-A was 7.1%. At Triple-A, it was 7.4%. Those numbers are pretty much right on his career minor league rate of 7.6%. With the Pirates this year, it’s just 5.4%. Maybe that’ll come up a bit to match his minor league rate, and maybe it won’t, but either way Presley doesn’t draw a ton of walks. That means to be a useful offensive player, he’s going to have to hit. It’s a lot tougher to hit in the Majors over an extended period than it is as a 25-year old in Triple-A.

This puts Presley in about the same situation Neil Walker was in after 2010. We know he can hit a bit and we know he’s got some pop in his bat, but the concerns about his minor league numbers are real and can’t be ignored. Presley’s been mostly cast as a leadoff hitter with the Pirates this year, but he’s batting .294 and his OBP is .333. That’s not good enough for a leadoff man.

What does that make Presley? A 35 double, 15 triple, 15 homer player that hits .290 has useful power even with a low OBP, but can Presley really hit 15 triples in a season? His speed is solid and he has good gap power, but he’s not Chase d’Arnaud or Andrew McCutchen on the bases. He’s not going to get faster at the age of 26. If he sacrifices average for home run power, his OBP will drop and that may not be an exchange worth making. Really, Presley’s kind of a tweener right now. His defense isn’t quite strong enough for center field, but his bat’s not quite good enough for a corner. He doesn’t quite get on base enough to be a leadoff hitter, but in the long-term it’s a question of whether or not he’ll have enough power to be a middle of the order guy. 

Presley’s kind of a tweener on the Pirates in the long-term, too. Obviously Andrew McCutchen will be in the Pirates’ outfield for the immdiate and near future, Starling Marte is the team’s best hitting prospect, and the team clearly likes Jose Tabata enough to give him a long-term extension. Tabata’s performance in his first two years in the Majors leaves something to be desired, but his OBP is higher than Presley’s and he’s three years younger, which I think may make his ceiling a bit higher, though obviously that’s up for debate. 

It looks to me like the Pirates are planning to take the Nate McLouth/Nyjer Morgan route with Tabata and Presley in 2012. Both of those guys opened 2009 in the outfield, as Neal Hutington tried to gauge what he had and what they were worth showcase the guys a bit, too, even though they didn’t really make an ideal outfield tandem. I’m worried, though, that Presley’s never going to be better than he is right now, that his average is making him a decent hitter and that it’s something that he’s going to have a hard time sustaining the longer he stays in the big leagues. Since returning from his injury, he’s hitting .269 with a .286 OBP. It’s a small sample but it’s also concerning, no matter how much power he’s flashing.  

If Presley has maximized his value (which, again, isn’t obviously true but is possible) and the club has good outfield depth in the minors and they’re looking for different ways to improve this winter, do they consider trading Presley before his service clock even hits one full year? It’d have to be a pretty significant offer, but then it’s possible that teams are over-valuing his performance this year and might overpay. I don’t know if I’d actively be shopping him at this point, but he’s definitely one of the guys on the current roster I’d be most willing to listen to offers for. 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.

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