The Pittsburgh Pirates have a farm system that is loaded with middle infield talent that is quickly cloing in on the Majors. Due to this, 2021 could be a make or break season for Kevin Newman.
One area the Pittsburgh Pirates have a ton of depth at is middle infield. Right now, Adam Frazier is penciled in at second base. At shortstop, Ben Cherington stated in an interview with Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that there is “plenty of room for competition” among candidates Erik Gonzalez, Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker.
They’re far from the only options the Pittsburgh Pirates have on the 40-man roster. They recently added Rodolfo Castro to protect him in the Rule 5 Draft. The slugging prospect has experience at second base, shortstop and third base. Oneil Cruz is arguably their best prospect. While many think he will eventually make a move to the outfield, his primary position right now is shortstop.
Utility man Phillip Evans might also factor into the middle infield scene given he has over 4000 innings played at both positions throughout his minor league career. On their prospect list, 2020 first-round pick Nick Gonzales and the headliner in the Starling Marte trade last offseason, Liover Peguero, rank as two of the Pirates’ higher-end prospects. They’re likely seen as the future of the middle infield for the Bucs. Don’t forget about Ji-Hwan Bae either. He has experience at both second base and shortstop and put up some good batting numbers in 2019.
Even if the Pittsburgh Pirates trade Frazier, who’s currently penciled in at second base, and move Cruz to another position, that’s still a lot of players for just two positions. 2021 could be a make or break year for a lot of Pittsburgh Pirates players, and one of them will be middle infielder Kevin Newman.
A 2015 first-round pick, Newman had a solid rookie campaign in 2019. With a collision between Marte and Gonzalez, Newman got an opportunity for regular playing time and ran away with it. Through 531 plate appearances, Newman hit .308/.353/.446 with a dozen home runs, 16 stolen bases, a 110 wRC+ and .339 wOBA. He only walked 5.3% of the time, but his 11.7% strikeout rate was the fifth lowest in baseball.
Defensively, Newman was a poor shortstop with -7 Defensive Runs Saved, -9.8 UZR/150 and -4 range runs above average. He also had -9 Outs Above Average, which was the fourth lowest mark among any shortstop. However, he handled himself well in 157.2 innings at second base. At the keystone, Newman had +2 DRS, 1.9 UZR and 0.8 range runs above average.
While his bat and his glove would have made a great second baseman, there were tons of questions surrounding Newman’s hitting ability entering 2020. For one, Newman’s power was very unexpected. He only hit 15 home runs and .100 isolated slugging percentage throughout 1803 plate appearances in the minors. This was partly because of the juiced ball MLB used in 2019, which they said they’d change back in 2020. Newman also rarely made hard contact. His hard hit rate of 24.8% was in the bottom 6th percentile while his exit velocity of 85.3 MPH was in the bottom 3rd percentile in all of baseball. Combined with a ground ball rate of nearly 50% and there was a lot to worry about going into his sophomore season.
2020 was pretty rough for Newman on both sides of the ball. With the bat, he only hit .224/.286/.276 with a 54 wRC+. At shortstop, Newman was even worse than he was in 2019 with -3 DRS, -0.8 range runs above average and -2.8 UZR. He also rated as a below average second baseman as well. OAA painted him in the best of light at just -1.
Now granted, this was in a very small amount of time. He only stepped to the plate 172 times, but Newman didn’t take any steps forward that would indicate that he would have put up better results in a full season. He was still among the worst in hard hit rate (17.5%) and exit velocity (83.5 MPH) while carrying a high ground ball rate (48.5%).
Currently, he is likely out in front for a starting spot in the middle infield, but that could quickly change. A slow start by Newman and a hot start by one of Tucker, Gonzalez or Evans could push Newman to a bench role. Tucker showed glimpses of potential with the bat in 2019, as did Evans in 2020 before an unfortunate collision with Gregory Polanco that ended his season. Gonzalez had stretches in both 2019 and 2020 where he was a pretty decent batter as well.
If Newman struggles again in 2021, this opens the door for the aforementioned Castro. The Pirates’ 12th best prospect on FanGraphs and 26th best prospect in MLB Pipeline, has shown some pop and speed throughout the minors. Peguero has an ETA of 2022, which could be another player to put Newman on the hot seat. We might even see Cruz sometime in 2021 depending on how well he does at Double-A and Triple-A next season which could be another potential player to push Newman off of regular time. Newman still has three options remaining. So if he does struggle to the point the Pirates want him to work things out at Triple-A, then they have that option as well.
However, if he does bounce back to some degree, the Pittsburgh Pirates are left with a tough choice. He could move to a utility role and see time all over the field. He’s fast enough that he could cover ground in the outfield. The Bucs are likely going to want to use Peguero and Gonzales at shortstop and second base over Newman. If Newman can field well enough in the outfield, he could become their next centerfielder depending on the development of Travis Swaggerty over the next season.
Alternatively, they could use Newman as trade bait if they feel that Tucker, Castro and Evans can hold the fort at shortstop and second base until Peguero and Gonzales are in the Majors. Whether the return would be for a prospect or a major league player with some control remaining will depend on the development of the Bucs’ prospects and what teams are willing to give up.
A starting position is definitely Kevin Newman’s to lose. The Pittsburgh Pirates have a handful of talented middle infielders coming up through the minors and on the 40-man roster already. After a rough 2020, Newman’s next season will be a major deciding factor in his future with the Pirates.