The Pittsburgh Pirates have plenty of options to start at the keystone to open the 2023 season, but which option is the best?
Second base was a mixed bag this year for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Ten different players were used at the position for at least 30 innings. Some of those players are no longer part of the organization, like Josh VanMeter, Yu Chang, and Michael Chavis, but still a lot of guys for one position nonetheless. While the Pirates do have many talented middle infield prospects in the system, who will open the 2023 season as their starting second baseman?
The easy answer is Rodolfo Castro. Castro ended the season on a high note. After the Pirates recalled the slugger in early August, Castro would go on to hit .247/.310/.478 with ten home runs in just 200 trips to the plate. The infielder had a solid 8.5% walk rate but also struck out well over a quarter of the time with a 27.5% strikeout rate.
Overall, Castro had a healthy .339 wOBA and 119 wRC+. He was one of the better rookies in baseball down the stretch. Castro’s .231 isolated slugging percentage was the 20th-best in all of baseball from August through the end of the season (min. 200 plate appearances). The only rookies with a higher ISO were Michael Harris of the Atlanta Braves, Joey Meneses of the Washington Nationals, and Lars Notbaar of the division-rival St. Louis Cardinals. Castros’ wRC+ also ranked top 50 in the league and top 10 among all rookies.
Although that might sound like Castro is the easy answer at second base, he displayed poor defense at the position. Castro had -2 defensive, a -9.2 UZR/150, and -2 outs above average at the keystone. With the Pirates currently having very few designated hitter options, he may end up seeing more time as a DH than a second baseman.
If that’s the case, the Pirates may be more inclined to keep Kevin Newman around for a bit longer. Newman had an okay but not great year at the dish. He batted .274/.316/.372 with a .303 wOBA and 95 wRC+, making him 5% worse than the league average batter in 2022. Newman only struck out 15.5% of the time with a poor 5.2% walk rate, but that’s the kind of hitter Newman is. He rarely walks, but he also rarely strikes out.
It was a decent rebound season for the infielder after he hit just .226/.268/.302 with a .250 wOBA and 53 wRC+ in 726 plate appearances between 2020 and 2021. Newman also displayed solid defense at second base. He had zero defensive runs saved, but +2 outs above average and a +2.8 UZR/150.
Of course, there is a ton of downside to Newman. He’s only really usable vs. left-handed pitching. Newman posted a .837 OPS, .370 wOBA, and 140 wRC+ vs southpaws in 2022 and has a career .280/.333/.380 slash line against them. But against right-handed pitching, he had a .611 OPS, .268 wOBA, and 70 wRC+, along with a career .253/.291/.348 slash. His .326 batting average on balls in play in ‘22 isn’t great either, even for a more line-drive-centric approach, and he must hit for a .270+ average to be even semi-productive with the bat since he draws zero walks and hits for no power.
The Pirates are more likely to trade Newman this off-season and take advantage of his 2022 season than keep him around as a platoon/defensive replacement. If Newman nor Castro are the answer at second base, then it might be Tucupita Marcano.
Marcano did not perform well in the major leagues. It was a small sample size of 177 plate appearances, but he hit just .206/.256/.306 with a .249 wOBA and 57 wRC+. On the plus side, Marcano looked great at second base, racking up +3 outs above average in just 157 plate appearances. Marcano played the grass more than he did the dirt, but he is more of an infielder by trade.
Marcano also had a strong season between Double-A and Triple-A. In 241 plate appearances, the utility man slashed .291/.388/.443 with a .370 wOBA and 126 wRC+. Marcano’s 17.4% strikeout rate may seem great, but it is poor for him. But he did offset that with a 14.1% walk rate, the second-best single-season walk rate he’s put up in his career. He also had a solid .153 isolated slugging percentage, which is pretty decent for a guy who projects as just a 30-grade power hitter.
Ji-Hwan Bae is another option to consider. He had a decent season at Triple-A, slashing .289/.362/.430 with a .353 wOBA and 112 wRC+. Bae struck out just 16.9% of the time with a 10.1% walk rate. He swiped 30 bases, too, making it the second time he’s stolen 30+ bags in three seasons. Bae made his major league debut in 2022, collecting 11 hits, including three doubles, with just six strikeouts and two walks in 37 total plate appearances.
Bae has mostly been a middle infielder throughout his minor league career but played more outfield when he reached the big leagues late last season. The Pittsburgh Pirates are probably more inclined to give Bae the starting center field job than the starting second base job so they can fully take advantage of his speed.
The last option I want to discuss is a platoon. This would be between Diego Castillo and a free agent or prospect. Castillo provided a ton of power when he faced left-handed pitching. He batted .239/.281/.507 with a .332 wOBA, and 114 wRC+ vs southpaws. Castillo crushed nine home runs in just 153 plate appearances. While he didn’t provide much in the way of average or on-base percentage, his .268 ISO was the ninth-best in Major League Baseball. He even surpassed MVP-caliber players like Yordan Alvarez, Manny Machado, and Carlos Correa when it came to hitting for power vs. lefties.
The other end of the platoon could be Marcano, a minor leaguer like Aaron Shackelford, or a free agent such as former Pirate Adam Frazier. This would enable the Pirates to get Castillo’s power vs. LHP in the line-up but not sacrifice all production vs. right-handers.
I think the best option the Pittsburgh Pirates have here is to start Marcano until Nick Gonzales or Liover Peguero are ready to take over. Even though Marcano struggled last year in the major leagues, you have to remember he skipped three levels of the minor leagues in 2021 before making his major league debut. This was the first season he played a full year in the upper levels of the minor leagues, and he did pretty well.