Pittsburgh Pirates: Looking at How Shortstop Could Shake Out

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 18: Kevin Newman #27 of the Pittsburgh Pirates in action during the game against the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park on September 18, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 18: Kevin Newman #27 of the Pittsburgh Pirates in action during the game against the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park on September 18, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) /

Shortstop has gotten off to a slow start this season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Who will be getting the majority of the reps by the end of 2021?

For the Pittsburgh Pirates, two positions are off to a slow start this season. On Thursday, Marty took a look at the slow start for the team’s center fielders and how they could address it. The other position group off to a slow start for the Pittsburgh Pirates is shortstop.

Entering play on Friday Pirate shortstops have combined to hit just .210/.229/.309 with a .239 wOBA and 46 wRC+. They’ve been the third-worst hitting shortstops in baseball and overall the third least valuable group of players. This could lead to the position looking a lot different by the end of the 2021 season, so who could be starting at the middle infield spot?

Right now, Kevin Newman has gotten the bulk of playing time at short. But he’s currently hitting .180/.196/.220 with a .186 wOBA and 14 wRC+ in 51 plate appearances. Yes, that is correct. He has a wRC+ below 20.

Now, Newman’s defense at shortstop has gotten better. He currently already has +2 Defensive Runs Saved and is in the top 69th percentile in outs above average. But he’s still making extremely weak contact with an average exit velo of just 84.6 MPH and a 20.9% hard-hit rate. He also has a ground ball percentage approaching 70%.

The current alternative at the Major League level is Erik González. He’s currently hitting .257/.278/.429 with a.309 wOBA and 91 wRC+ in 36 plate appearances. He’s showing a bit of power so far with a .171 isolated slugging percentage and hasn’t looked all that bad in his last few games. He’s collected 7 hits, including 3 doubles, and has a 1:3 walk:strikeout rate in his last 5 contests. Gonzalez has shown the ability to go on hot streaks. He did in September 2019 and had a 108 plate appearance stretch in 2020 where he had a .866 OPS.

However, González has high peaks and low valleys. Throughout his career González only has a .278 wOBA and 69 wRC+. González may get more starts right now since he’s playing much better, but the Pirates can’t rely on him to keep up this performance the entire season.

After González, who could be the next option?

It’s probably 2014 first-round pick Cole Tucker. So far, Tucker has been a very poor hitter at the Major League level. In 275 plate appearances Tucker is only hitting .215/.260/.324 with a .251 wOBA and 53 wRC+. However, he does have gold glove potential at shortstop. He’s only played 318.2 innings at the position in the majors but has +2 DRS, a 4.6 UZR/150 and 0.3 range runs above average. Defense was his calling card and he’s probably the best defender at the position throughout the entire organization.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a ton of young shortstop prospects coming up the pipeline. Liover Peguero and Oneil Cruz are the team’s two best shortstop prospects. Ji-Hwan Bae and Rodolfo Castro are two other prospects in the Pirates’ system with experience up the middle. However, among these prospects, only Cruz has ever played above High-A. He’s the only one with a potential chance to play in the Majors in 2021 and that is questionable as well.

Personally, I’d love to see Tucker get some regular time at shortstop. This would give the team one of the best defensive duos on the left side of the infield, pairing with Ke’Bryan Hayes at the hot corner. However, they’ll likely give Kevin Newman a bit more of a chance before moving on from him. Sure he only has a wRC+ of 12 and a wOBA below .200, but we’re also looking at less than 100 plate appearances.

The question is how much more of a leash will they give Newman? They do have time to keep giving him chances, but they can’t keep marching out a guy with a wRC+ below 20 regularly regardless if they’re taking or competing. At least Chris Davis had a wRC+ from 2018-2020 right around 50. If Newman can’t at least get to the 50 wRC+ mark by the end of May and hasn’t shown any signs of improvement, then I think Tucker gets the call.

While setting the bar at just 50 wRC+ is setting it very low, if neither Newman nor Gonzalez are consistently hitting or are around that mark, the Bucs are better off going with the younger option in Cole Tucker. At least with Tucker, you know you’re getting outstanding defense at short even if his bat isn’t great.

Next. Potential International Class Breakout. dark

So who will be the Pirates’ starting shortstop by the end of the 2021 season? At this rate, it’ll likely be González with Tucker potentially replacing Newman. Obviously, there’s still a lot of baseball left to play and things could completely change in the next month. But if I had to make a prediction now, Tucker will be the team’s primary answer at shortstop. At the very least, Tucker gives the Pirates Gold Glove-caliber defense at the position. Though not known for his bat, there’s no doubt that he could at least match what’s been put up so far, that being a 46 wRC+ and .239 wOBA.