The Pirates Middle Infield Is Up In The Air

All conversations about the future at shortstop and second base for the Pittsburgh Pirates almost always end up with the word logjam. On the way to this conclusion there are discussions about trading Adam Frazier, Cole Tucker being given a fair shake at shortstop and Kevin Newman sliding over to second base; along with expectations of Liover Pegeuro and Nick Gonzales reaching their full potentials and eventually leading the Pirates back to the playoffs. However, these possibilities are all routed in hope and speculation, where nothing is promised and circumstances can change in the blink of an eye. So, for now it only makes sense to focus on the players that are currently on the roster because even the assumptions or opinions that we may have are not always going to turn out the way we expect them to.

Adam Frazier has been a finalist for a Gold Glove at Second Base the past two seasons and a potential trade candidate for almost as long, Kevin Newman took over at Shortstop in 2019 thanks to a outstanding rookie campaign, but regressed at the plate in the shortened season, Cole Tucker played his way back to the minors as Newman emerged and found himself in the outfield last year and Erik Gonzalez just always seems to find his way into the lineup with sporadic success at the plate and consistent defense. Four players, with only two positions available.

Of course it is possible that Frazier will be traded or moved to the outfield, as he was at the end of last season. And perhaps Gonzalez gets non-tendered at the deadline, which would immediately relieve some of the pressure in find a role for everyone. Each of these things could happen, but neither of them are a guarantee. What happens if all four guys are still on the roster come Spring Training? Who deserves to be in the starting lineup and what position should they play?

For the past two seasons Erik Gonzalez has become the shortstop of choice for two different coaching staffs. In 2019 he was named the opening day starter, who’s collision with Starling Marte derailed his year, and in 2020 he eventually won the regular role after splitting time at third and short to start the year. After working his way back at toward the end of the year, he performed fairly well by hitting .275 over the final 37 games. Then at the beginning of this one, during a seven game stretch, Gonzalez saw his average shoot up from .125 to .349 and his OPS reach as high as .907. However, as we all are aware, this streak did not continue and over the last 30 games and 111 at bats Gonzalez slashed .225/.270/.351.

On the defensive side of things Gonzalez has proven to be a asset as he earned 3 OAA this past season, to go along with 2 DRS. However, in his two seasons with the Pirates he has accumulated a 0.0 WAR, which would make him the very definition of a replacement level player in spite of being an above average with the glove.

Following Gonzalez’s injury it was the young and enthusiastic Cole Tucker that was the first man up, mostly due to Kevin Newman being on the IL with a lacerated finger. Tucker started his career off with a bang by hitting a game winning homer in his first ever game. After his hot start the shine began to wear off as his average fell to .196, ultimately resulting in him being optioned back to AAA-Indianapolis after 38 games. He would be called back up again in September, but his struggles continued as he ended the year with a .211 AVG, 2 homers and a 61 wRC+. This past season it was much of the same as he batted .220 with 1 homer and a 43 wRC+.

As it was with Gonzalez, Tucker’s defense was his strong suit as he posted a 2 DRS, but a surprising -2 OAA. In the end he was also a 0.0 WAR replacement level player. This past year’s metrics can pretty much be thrown out the window as he was learning a new position on the fly. So the -.5 WAR only shows that he was a below average Major League outfielder, which could be expected.

When Tucker was sent down in 2019, Newman ultimately replaced him and took advantage of the situation by batting .308 with 12 homers and a 110 wRC+. He was a 2.4 WAR player on the season inspire of a -7 DRS and -9 OAA at shortstop. He performed better in limited time at second by posting a 2 DRS and 0 OAA.

During the off-season amateur and professional sabermetricians alike began to question how Newman had maintained his high level of production at the plate for the entire year and honestly they were kind of stumped. Almost all of the data showed that it shouldn’t have been possible or at the very least would be difficult to replicate. In other words Newman would more than likely be heading for a regression as he ranked near bottom in exit velocity, hard hit %, xSlG and barrel %, as well below average in xwOBA according to Statcast.

In the shortened season, when healthy, Newman did struggle as he only managed to hit .224 on the season with 1 home run and a 54 wRC+. He also scuffled in the field again, this time at second base as well, earning a -1 DRS and – 3 OAA. Due to not being able to balance out his poor defense with a strong offense made Newman a -.4 WAR player on the season.

This takes us to the player that many believe will be traded in the off-season, Adam Frazier. I am not saying that he shouldn’t be or won’t be trade, but I have been hearing these rumors for over a year now and I will wait until it actually happens before planning a season without him.

As as far as Frazier is concerned, in the equivalent of 4 MLB seasons with the Pirates, he has shown himself to be around a league average hitter (.275 AVG and 100 wRC+), with defensive upside (6 DRS IF/OF, 6 OAA SB 2020 and 11 OAA 2B 2019). This past season he slashed .230/.279/.661; adding 7 homers in the process. If extrapolated over a 162 game schedule this equates to around 19 home runs, which would be a career high.

So what does this all mean as far as the middle infield is concerned for the upcoming 2021 season? Well, if by some chance Frazier is not traded in the off-season, I see no reason why he shouldn’t be the starting second baseman on opening day. I know this is an extremely unpopular opinion, but if the Pirates want to show players that a position must be earned, it makes no sense to hand it over to an underperforming Kevin Newman out of the gate. Of course if Frazier isn’t there, and probably if he is, I see Manager Derek Shelton going back to Newman to see if he can at least put up average defensive numbers and bounce back offensively from a disappointing 2020 season.

As far as shortstop is concerned, your guess is as good as mine. I still feel that if Tucker is going to be on the field consistently it should be at his natural position, so I would honestly like to see him get this shot. However, if it comes down to a competition between Gonzalez and Tucker it would be hard to imagine Tucker being able to overtake the incumbent at the position unless he had an extremely impressive Spring Training and even then it might be a questionable outcome. So, if Gonzalez is still here, it is probably his position to lose.

Unfortunately after weighing all of the options I am left feeling a little disappointed because I don’t really have anymore clarity on the situation from when I started other than the fact that the one guy, Adam Frazier, who has earned a spot at a middle infield position is a player who is likely not to be here next year. This leaves three players, and possibly two after tomorrow’s non-tender deadline, that haven’t truly earned a spot, starting in the infield for the Pirates in 2021. Which leads me to wonder if there really is as much of a logjam at the middle infield as we have been lead to believe.

Published by Craig W. Toth

Former Contributing Author at InsidethePirates.com, Co-Host of the Bucs in the Basement Podcast and life-long/diehard Pittsburgh Pirates Fan!

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