Entering the 2021 season there was concern that shortstop would be a problem for the Pittsburgh Pirates and these worries appear to be coming to fruition
Prior to the start of the regular season the Rum Bunter staff did their 2021 season predictions for the Pittsburgh Pirates. In mine, the shortstop position was identified as the weakest for the Pirates entering the 2021 season.
Three series into the 2021 season the shortstop position has been a problem for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Unfortunately, this is happening with no end to the struggles in sight. Now, Derek Shelton and his staff are forced to figure out the shortstop position.
Following a historically hot Spring Training performance, Kevin Newman has struggled since the calendar flipped to the regular season. Outside of his 2019 season in which he posted a 109 wRC+ in 531 plate appearances with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the former first-round pick has always struggled to hit.
Newman struggled in the Majors in 2018 and 2020. This came after struggling in the minors in 2017 as well. So far in 2021, Newman is, once again, struggling in a big way offensively at the plate.
After going 1-for-5 with a strikeout in Sunday’s victory over the Cubs, Newman is now hitting for just a .188/.188/.219 slash line to go with a wRC+ of 12 through his first 32 PAs this season. Newman has, once again, struggled to hit the ball hard. His 11.5% hard hit rate, 83.5 MPH exit velocity and 0% barrel rate are all well below league average. All of this is in line with his career norms of a 24.2% hard hit rate, 85.1 MPH exit velocity and a 1.6% barrel rate.
Until he proves otherwise Newman should be viewed as a below average MLB hitter. Newman has hit for a .275/.320/.378 slash line to go with a wRC+ of 85 in 827 career PAs. He’s also been a below average defensive shortstop in his career with a -2.8 dWAR, -14 Defensive Runs Saved and an Outs Above Average of -12. If Newman is not producing offensively the way he did in 2019, it is difficult to justify playing him every day due to his defensive woes.
The other option at shortstop is Erik González. Like Newman, González has plenty of shortcomings as a hitter. In 605 MLB PAs the right-handed hitting González has hit for a .246/.280/.362 slash line to go with a 67 wRC+. This season González is just 3-for-20, however, he has a walk, a home run and a double, all of which Newman has none of thus far.
Unlike Newman, González is a plus defender at the shortstop position. González owns a lifetime 6.0 dWAR, +2 DRS and an OAA of +7 at shortstop in his MLB career. González, while his offensive results have been poor, has produced strong hit rates in his MLB career.
With shortstop becoming a problem for the Pittsburgh Pirates some people may want to turn to the minor leagues. Well, the problem is, while the Pirates are deep with infield prospects, none of their top shortstop prospects are close to MLB ready. Oneil Cruz is the first to come to mind but he has never played above Double-A where he struggled in 2019, while Liover Peguero and Ji-Hwan Bae have both yet to even reach the Double-A level. For at least foreseeable future, Newman and González will be the team’s options at shortstop.
If neither Newman nor González are going to contribute at even a league average level offensively, then the Pirates may be best suited to go defensive first. This is especially true due to the shortstop position being a premium shortstop position. Due to this, the Pirates might be best served to make González the primary starter at shortstop. Regardless of how things shake out, shortstop is becoming a problem for the Pirates.