By: Noah Wright
The Pirates are set to lose not just one, but both of their middle infield players: Jordy Mercer, who signed with the Tigers a few days ago, and Josh Harrison, who’s still lingering on the free agent market. The Bucs plan to use Adam Frazier as their full-time second basemen. While that’s far from a bad choice at 2B, it still leaves short unfilled.
Currently, the Pirates are content to use a duo of Kevin Newman and Erik Gonzalez, with Kevin Kramer possibly thrown into the mix as well. Overall, that’s a very unimpressive group. Newman nor Kramer performed well in their September call-up. Though Erik Gonzalez has much more MLB experience, he has also never done anything impressive in the majors either. He’s played exactly 162 games in his MLB career so far (275 plate appearances), and has batted .263/.292/.389. Though Kramer and Newman are young and are viewed as some of the Pirates higher rated prospects, if the team wants to try and compete in 2019, they need to explore better options at short, both internally and externally.
The team’s roster hosts a handful of infielders that have performed better in the majors than the three I have talked about so far. The first is Jung Ho Kang. Sure, Kang hasn’t played an inning at short since his rookie season in 2015. But he did play it at an adequate level. Overall, he has 0 DRS and -2.3 UZR. Between 2015 and 2016, Kang posted a .273/.355/.482 batting line in 837 plate appearances. He also brings some pop to the Pirates line-up, something that they need, and something that none of Kramer, Newman or Gonzalez have.
Another interall option at shortstop could be Pablo Reyes. Reyes, unlike Newman or Kramer, was impressive in his September call-up. Though it was a limited 63 plate appearances, he still batted .293/.349/.483 with 3 home runs. In the minors, Reyes batted .284/.337/.421 in 447 PA’s. Plus he stole 16 bases, showing that he is a good base runner and likely has range up the middle. Reyes is an experienced shortstop in the minors, and also can play multiple positions including second base, third base, and the outfield corners. In the majors, I’d project he could be a similar batter to Jean Segura, giving a solid batting average, OBP, while also stealing some bases, and manning his position with good defense.
The Pirates have explored some out of organization options. One of which is Diamondback shortstop Nick Ahmed. Ahmed is not going to win anybody over with his bat. Last season he hit just .234/.290/.411 with a 84 wRC+ and .300 wOBA. However, he did hit a career high 16 home runs. However, the main attraction to Ahmed is his fielding skills. He’s been one of the best defensive players in the game. Last season, Ahmed was worth 21 DRS, 4.6 UZR, and worth an overall 2.9 dWAR. One thing I do want to point out about Ahmed is that he rarely made soft contact last season, with a 17.2 soft contact %. But, he did raise his hard contact rate to 39.2%. The Pirates may be able to find some value in that, and try to get Ahmed to find the gaps, which would add hitting value to his high defensive value.
A similar player to Ahmed the Pirates have been linked to is Jose Iglesias. Like Ahmed, Iglesias is a very defensive minded shortstop. This season, he had 1 DRS, 8.2 UZR, and .9 defensive WAR. His offensive capabilities aren’t too standout. While he might provide a .260-.270 batting average, his career OBP stands at .313 and his slugging % is a low .363. However, given when he does have all-star level seasons, his average can reach upwards of .300 and his OPB can get to nearly .350.
The Bucs have plenty of options and routes they could go down to solve the middle infield issue. However, they look as if they’re about to go down the worst route. That’s using Kevin Newman/Kramer and Erik Gonzalez. Using this combination of players could be detrimental to the overall performance of the team. They could get much better offensive production from someone like Jung Ho Kang or Pablo Reyes, or get much better defensive production from Ahmed and Iglesias.