Averaging 4.84 runs scored per game, the Pittsburgh Pirates offense has been better than what many had expected going into 2008. In fact, their starting OF has been stellar, averaging an adjusted OPS of 138, which is tops in MLB*. You read that correctly. You could easily make the argument that the 2008 Pittsburgh Pirates have the best offensive outfield in Major League Baseball. I’m going to give you a second to let that sink in.

That’s better than Boston (Manny-Ellsbury-Drew = 127), St. Louis (Schumaker-Ankiel-Ludwick = 126), White Sox (Quentin-Swisher-Dye = 129), and even Detroit (Thames-Granderson-Maggs = 136).

Consisting of Jason Bay, Nate McLouth and Xavier Nady, each member of this Pittsburgh outfield trio have OBPs north of .350 and slug at least .510.

Which is why it’s really too bad that the Pirates are still pretty far out in the playoff hunt, 11.5 games behind the Cubs for the division lead. And the long-term outlook for the Bucs would be improved if they broke up their outfield in preparation for 2009 and beyond.

With all three players performing at such a high level, any of them should interest teams looking for an offensive boost for the stretch run. Xavier Nady is the one who will most likely get dealt, which makes sense. He’s a 29-year old in the last year of his contract. Based on his current performance this season, he’s going to get quite the raise from his $3.35MM salary. In addition, with a very strong .284/.387/.531 line and a pretty budget friendly contract ($5.75MM in ’08, $7.5MM in ’09), Jason Bay will most likely be among the top names we’ll be hearing about as we approach the trade deadline. There’s been word that Pittsburgh intends on keeping Bay for now, and if this is their sincere intent, then I think they’re making a mistake. Not only will the Pirates still be near the basement in 2009 with or without him, this is the perfect sell-high moment. With one more year left on his contract, teams would be more inclined to make an offer, much like the Rangers were able to do last year with Mark Teixeira.

The only one that the Pirates ought to keep for 2009 is McLouth and they ought to ink him to a long-term contract extension very soon (arbitration eligible at the end of the year), despite the fact that Pittsburgh management seems very wary of committing financially to players over the long haul. Although many small market teams have been quick to lock up their young talent in recent months, the Pirates have been late to that party. In fact, the only player on the roster with a guaranteed Major League contract two seasons from now (in 2010) is Ian Snell. To be fair, they haven’t exactly had the kind of young talent that’s really worth locking up, but I think McLouth’s bat is worth the risk.

And if Bay and/or Nady can be dealt, the Bucs have a pretty good prospect waiting in the wings named Andrew McCutchen. Currently playing for AAA-Indianapolis, McCutchen is a five-tool centerfielder whose skills at the position should allow the team to move McLouth over to left (Nate currently sports a pretty ugly .866 RZR in center). But since he’s only 21 years old, I’d understand it if the Pirates waited just a bit longer to call him up.

Now if they could only figure out this “pitching” thing, they’d be going somewhere…

*One caveat so that Rangers fans won’t jump me – on those days when Texas goes with the trio of Milton Bradley-Josh Hamilton-David Murphy, they’re better (OPS-Plus of 142). But Bradley’s mostly a DH these days (48 games at DH, 17 in OF).

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