The Pittsburgh Pirates have many players who are capable of playing second base. But what does the overall future of the position look like?
If the 2020 season ever gets under way, the Pittsburgh Pirates are looking to open the season with Adam Frazier lined up as the primary keystone defender. Last year, Frazier batted for a .278/.336/.417 line in 608 plate appearances. That includes 10 home runs, and 33 doubles. Overall, Fraizer was roughly league average to slightly below league average with a 99 OPS+, 97 wRC+ and 95 DRC+. All of this falls about in line with his career averages as well (.279/.342/.420, 103 OPS+, /wRC+, 97 DRC+).
But while Frazier does not make too big of an impact with his bat, he is a well regarded defender up the middle. Although he had -3 DRS, Frazier finished out the 2019 season with 2.9 UZR, 1.3 range runs above average and was in the top 97th percentile of infield outs above average with +11. That ties him with Cleveland Indians’ All-Star Francisco Lindor, and places him just ahead of the 2019 second base Gold Glove Award winner, Kolten Wong. IT should be noted that Frazier joined Wong as one of the three finalists for the award.
However, Frazier is one of the Pittsburgh Pirates more valuable trade pieces as he was mainly used as a utility man in the first few seasons of his career. The 28-year-old has 878.2 innings in the outfield, and in the minors he was often used as a shortstop. Plus with only two years of control left, and the Pirates having plenty of depth at second base that is much younger, he isn’t seen as the team’s long term answer at the keystone.
So, who should you expect to be there when the Pittsburgh Pirates are in contention?
It is widely expected that Cole Tucker will push 2019 standout rookie Kevin Newman from shortstop to second base. Newman batted .308/.353/.446 with a 111 OPS+, 110 wRC+ and 107 DRC+. He also rarely struck out with a 11.7% strikeout rate, which was the 5th lowest in baseball. Newman showed both some speed and pop with 12 long balls, and 16 steals.
However, Newman was not a good defensive shortstop last season. He had the 4th lowest DRS (-7), and was 5th lowest UZR (-5.2), and range runs above average (-4). But at second base, Newman was great. Although it was only a 157.2 inning sample size, the 26-year-old had +2 DRS, .8 range runs above average, and an outstanding 17.5 UZR/150.
But the big question about Newman is will his bat hold up? Newman ranked in the bottom five percentile of hard hit rate (24.4%) and exit velocity (84.7 MPH). In comparison, the league average exit velocity was about 87-88 MPH, and the average hard hit rate was around 39%.
Soft contact=less hits.
Plus, he also had an expected slugging percentage of just .389. That’s a far cry from his actually slugging of .446, and almost identical to his minor league slugging percentage of .387. However that should be expected in the age where everyone is a home run hitter because of the juiced ball, which is expected to be taken out of the game next season.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Newman still has an expected batting average of .291. That ties him with Yoan Moncada and Ozzie Albies. Newman has been compared to Andrelton Simmons, which is a fair comparison as he doesn’t make loud contact often. Simmons batted .285/.334/.419 with a 105 OPS+ across 2017 and 2018, which is probably a fair projection to about what Newman could hit.
Newman is controlled through 2024. That should be enough control for him to lock down the keystone for the Pittsburgh Pirates for a couple of their years of contention. But if we see a version of Newman that more represents the 2016 Andrelton Simmons who hit just .281/.324/.366 with a 91 OPS+, who else could take over as the long term answer at second base? Well the Pirates are well stocked with second base capable prospects, so not to worry.
Next in line might be Korean infielder Ji-Hwan Bae. Bae hit .323/.403/.430 with a 145 wRC+ in 380 plate appearances at Low-A Greensboro. Bae has great pitch recognition. He walked at a strong rate of 11.3% of the time. He also struck out 20.3% of the time, which isn’t horrible. Overall, he had a .384 wOBA. Bae has a 40 current/50 future fielding grade at shortstop, making him an average defender at the position. But seeing as second base is the easier of the two middle infield positions, a full time transition to second base could really benefit his overall fielding numbers. He definitely has the speed to stick at a middle infield position too, with 30 steals and a 65 speed grade per FanGraphs.
But what if Tucker pans out and neither Bae or Newman do? That could push many other middle infield prospects who’s primary position is shortstop. This is a possibility with shortstop prospect Liover Peguero.
Peguero is considered a top 100 prospect by FanGraphs, coming in at 98. FanGraphs also pins Peguero as the Pirates’ 6th best prospect. Peguero has an ETA on MLB Pipeline of 2022, which would be his age 21 season.
The centerpiece of the Starling Marte trade, Peguero batted well with the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Rookie Ball team. In 156 plate appearances, Peguero had a .364/.410/.559 line with five home runs, and seven doubles. He also stole eight bases and finished with a 153 wRC+. Although he didn’t do nearly was well at Low-A, clocking in at a .690 OPS and 101 wRC+, it was only in 93 plate appearances.
Overall, between the two levels, Peguero had a .326/.382/.485 line, 11 doubles, five home runs, and 11 steals. Currently, he has a 45 grade for his fielding, but FanGraphs projects that to be an above average tool with a 55. He also has a decent arm with a 55 grade. While he isn’t seen as a big home run hitter, given his 40 future game power grade and 50 raw power grade, there’s potential for more in his bat. Last season, he had a 90 exit velocity, which is one of the highest among minor league prospects.
One last possible answer I want to go in depth with is 20-year-old Rodolfo Castro. Castro has experience at second base, third base and shortstop, but most of his time has came at second. Castro has a lot of power potential. Last year at Low-A Greensboro, the switch hitter batted .242/.306/.516 with 14 long balls and a 131 wRC+.
Like with Peguero, Castro’s struggled when he was moved up a level. When he got to High-A Bradenton, Castro had a .243/.288/.391 line. Overall, he is an average fielder with a 50 future grade, and is an average runner with a current grade of 55 but future grade of just 50. One question will arise about Castro though; his plate discipline. In 461 total plate appearances in 2019, Castro struck out 122 times, and walked only 31. That’s a walk to strikeout rate of just .25. That would rank among some of the lowest numbers in the MLB in 2019.
Hopefully, we can see Newman hit like 2017-2018 Andrelton Simmons. But if he doesn’t, you shouldn’t have to worry about it. The Pirates have plenty of middle infielders ready to take over the reigns at second base. Middle infield is likely the position the Pittsburgh Pirates have the most young talent at in their organization.