Before I even started writing this piece, my mind became filled with the reaction(s) Pirates Fan could have to the word need in the title; saying that I am going overboard (ship themed pun intended) or reaching with my assessment of the situation. If we are being honest, I agree with them to a degree. A better descriptor concerning the potential value of a Kevin Newman bounce back would be benefit or more accurately that the Pirates could benefit from him having a year that is closer to 2019 than 2020, and not just for the immediate impact provided by this type of season.
Prior to the 2020 season, newly hired General Manager Ben Cherington may have seen Newman as member of a core group of players that he mentioned being able build the team around. Although I am sure at this point some may be ready to throw Liover Pegeuro into the starting lineup after a 2 for 3, 2 RBI game on Thursday, but I digress.
In 2019 Newman posted a .308/.353/.446 slash like with 12 home runs, which was extremely surprising as he had only managed 15 in 402 Minor League games and over 1800 plate appearances. Obviously his defense left a lot to be desired with a -7 DRS and -8 OAA at the shortstop position, but overall earned 3.1 WAR and 2.3 fWAR respectively.
Of course during the off-season many, including myself targeting Newman as a possible regression candidate due to his ranking against the rest of MLB it pertained to exit velocity (5th percentile), hard hit % (6th percentile) and barrel % (4th percentile). On the other end of the equation he found himself near the top in K% (97th percentile) and whiff % (97th percentile), so solid production was not completely out of the production.
Unfortunately, for Newman, the batting peripherals caught up with him in the shortened season that ultimately ended prematurely thanks to a 97-mph fastball to the knee. In 44 games he sputtered to a .224 AVG with a single homer in 156 at bats. Once again his defense didn’t help him either as he put up a -4 DRS and -3 OAA as he split time between shortstop and second base. So, it was really no surprise that as Spring Training was about to begin a little over a month ago, Manager Derek Shelton announced an open competition between Newman, Erik Gonzalez and Cole Tucker, which Newman and Gonzalez must have taken as a challenge. Regrettably for Tucker, a thumb injury put him in the hole almost from the beginning; never allowing him to catch up and eventually resulting in an option to AAA on March 24th.
With only a couple of games remaining in Spring Training before the Pirates open the season at Wrigley Field against the Cubs on April 1st, Gonzalez has posted a .308 AVG and .782 OPS with one homer; all while playing solid defense along the way at multiple positions. Newman’s performance in the Grapefruit League has been near historic at the plate. In 28 at bats he has 20 hits, including 6 doubles, 5 walks and no strikeouts; good for a .714 AVG and 1.664 OPS. Yes I realize it these stats don’t technically count for anything, but I would much rather see this than the .237 AVG he put up last spring. In the field he has looked a little bit more comfortable, but did bobble a fairly routine ball for his only error of the year.
With Gonzalez set to become a free agent in 2023 and Newman to follow two years later, it is clearly more beneficial for the guy who should be around longer to play better; not that they would want Gonzalez to play poorly in case they have aspirations to move him at some point over the next two years. However, as what could be defined by some as a place holder for intended duo of Liover Pegeuro and Nick Gonzalez it would be nice to know there is a solid vet like Newman to allow for them to develop at their own pace, be a safety net for any struggles and ultimately an experienced bat coming off the bench for what will hopefully be a contender.
And although it may be a few years off, Newman may also find himself as a trade chip to replenish the system to keep the window open a little bit longer. If he slips back into his 2020, 44 game slump, Newman would be another 1st Round Draft disappointment from the Huntington Era, that could eventually set the current rebuild back further than it needs to be.