The Pirates have been without Corey Dickerson since April 4 due to a shoulder strain, but the outfielder is expected to begin a rehab assignment with Pittsburgh’s Triple-A affiliate this evening, per a team announcement.
It’s certainly welcome news for the Pirates, although the Pittsburgh outfield has been surprisingly productive even without Dickerson’s bat in the middle of the lineup. Melky Cabrera, signed to a minor league contract in the offseason, has given the Bucs a surprisingly strong .333/.370/.464 slash with three homers and nine doubles in 147 trips to the plate. In the other outfield corner, Gregory Polanco has turned in a similarly strong .278/.343/.522 slash and belted five long balls in 99 plate appearances since his own return from the injured list. Even rookie Bryan Reynolds has been brilliant since debuting earlier this season. In 89 plate appearances, the switch-hitter has a .321/.382/.568 slash with four homers and eight walks against 19 strikeouts.
If there’s been any weak spot in the outfield, it’s been in center, where Starling Marte has hit just .244/.275/.415 in 172 plate appearances. Marte is still hitting for power, playing solid defense and providing value on the basepaths, but he’s drawn only three walks all year. The decline in on-base skills hasn’t been accompanied by an uptick in strikeouts, but Marte’s apparent impatience at the dish, paired with some poor luck on balls in play, has weighed down his overall output.
It’s not clear how long Dickerson will need on his rehab assignment, but the strong production the Pirates have received in the corners suggests they won’t feel an urgency to rush him back. How he’ll fit into the lineup is a greater question. Dickerson, 30, slashed .300/.330/.474 in 533 plate appearances last season and will presumably be a prominent figure in the outfield once he’s at full strength. Cabrera seems likeliest for a reduced role, given that he’s playing on a minor league deal and his offense has slipped a bit over the past couple of weeks anyhow. Regardless of how the playing time shakes out, the Pirates will file it under the “good problem to have” category. Dickerson’s return will only deepen the outfield/bench mix for a Pirates club that, at 25-22, sits 3.5 games back in the NL Central and just one game back in the Wild Card race.
For Dickerson himself, a productive return will be of particular importance. He entered the season with five-plus years of Major League service time and is slated to become a free agent for the first time in his career this coming offseason.