Pirates Middle Infield Battle Is Heating Up

4-1-22 By Craig W. Toth (aka @BucsBasement on Twitter)

Back when Ben Cherington signed on to be GM of the Pittsburgh Pirates-and subsequently hired Derek Shelton to be the team’s manager-during the 2019-20 off-season, two of the positions that didn’t really need to be addressed, or questioned were those on either side of the keystone corner. Shortstop Kevin Newman was coming off of a rookie season in which he slashed .308/.358/.446 with 12 homers and accumulated 3.0 WAR; second only to ROY candidate Bryan Reynolds, who put up 4.2 WAR to finish 4th in the end of year competition. Meanwhile, former super utility player Adam Frazier had second base virtually locked down thanks to a solid .278 AVG and 10 homers with the bat; complimented by 6 DRS and 9 OAA with the glove.

Unfortunately for both men 2020 would be nothing short of a disaster. However, preceding this catastrophically bad season, former #5 Pirates Prospect Cole Tucker burst back on the scene by blasting three homers with a .957 OPS during the split Spring Training Schedule. Ultimately, and understandably it was not enough to unseat Newman or Frazier. Still, it forced Shelton and Cherington to find a place on the roster for him, with regular playing time in center and right field. Regrettably, this was also somewhat of debacle.

On the season Newman, Frazier and Tucker all found themselves hovering slightly above the Mendoza Line with averages of .224, .230 and .220 respectively. In the field Newman posted stats of -3 OAA and -3 DRS from the six spot, while Tucker landed at -1 OAA and -6 DRS in his new outfield role. Luckily, the trio did have a highlight as Frazier was nominated for Gold Gold Glove for the second straight season,

Due to such overall poor performances in the shortened 2020 season, Derek Shelton chose to hold an open competition at shortstop between Newman and Tucker to begin Spring Training; with Erik Gonzales added in, just like he had been since arriving from Cleveland prior to 2019. At second, Frazier would assume his normal spot, as trade rumors swirled around him once again.

Eventually both Gonzalez and Tucker would find themselves on the outside looking in-way outside in Tucker’s case-as Newman proceeded to bat .606 while not striking out once. Gonzalez hung around with a .326 AVG and a couple of homers, and Tucker saw himself optioned to Triple-A after struggling to hit .176. Prior to official start of the season it was determined that Tucker-along with Jared Olivia-would not travel north to the Alternate Site, but instead stay behind in Florida for “skill development” (aka hitting instruction) from then Triple-A Hitting Coach Jon Nunnally.

In the end Newman would crater with the bat; finishing the season with the worst wRC+(54) among all qualified hitters in MLB, Gonzales would be DFA’d, Frazier found himself in San Diego and Tucker made a slight push in the last month or so of the the season by batting .240 with a couple homers. To his credit Newman made a complete 180 on defense, earning a Gold Glove nomination along way; although no long term questions were really answered concerning the middle infield positions, as well as the super utility role that usually backs them both up.

As the shortened Spring Training finally started after the extended MLB Lockout, it felt as if there would be free-for-all to fill these three spots on the Opening Day Roster, with a minimum of 7 candidates-Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker, Oneil Cruz, Michael Chavis, Hoy Park, Rodolfo Castro and Diego Castillo-bunched together, fighting it out.

After a little over a week-and 13 at bats-Castro was dropped from the competition. Next up on the chopping block-in a fairly unpopular decision-was Oneil Cruz. On the surface Cruz performed well; with exit velocities that were pretty much unheard from anyone else on the Pirates roster and moonshot homers from anywhere in the zone. Nevertheless, for the purpose of this discussion, his is just another name crossed off the list.

Out of the remaining five players, Chavis is actually the only one that has truly underperformed. In 20 at bats-an extremely small sample size-he has struck out 7 times, managed only one extra base hit and is currently batting .150.

Kevin Newman on the other hand is back with his revamped swing, has a .313 AVG and a no doubt home run, Cole Tucker also has a new approach and a bulked up appearance-something that Gary broke down in detail yesterday-and Hoy Park has jumped right in after a COVID-19 diagnosis delayed his arrival. Of the three, Tucker has the slight edge as far as OPS, Tucker and Park each have a pair of homers and Newman leads in batting average; yet, the fifth and final player leads them all.

Thus far, Diego Castillo has mashed 4 homers, has a .364 AVG and a 1.326 OPS, while also making several outstanding plays in the field. According to manager Derek Shelton, Castillo is, “…in competition for a job on the club.” From all of the articles and tweets I’ve read on the subject, many feel he has more than earned this spot.

Now you have to add Josh VanMeter into the mix. Last evening-in a slightly perplexing move-the Pirates acquired the recently DFA’d VanMeter from the Arizona Diamond in exchange for a lottery ticket right handed pitcher, Listher Sosa. To clear space on the 40-man roster, Pittsburgh designated outfielder Jared Oliva for assignment; which wasn’t really all that much of a surprise, and was actually something I had previously written about. However, if I am being honest, I always thought that Oliva’s DFA would come at the expense of an additional arm for the rotation or bullpen, not another super utility player for the already crowded middle infield.

Which truthfully begs the question(s): 1) What exactly is VanMeter’s role with the Pirates? And, 2) Is there anything he can do, that any other player couldn’t?

Originally drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 5th Round of the 2013 MLB June Amateur Draft out of Norwell High School in Ossian, Indiana, VanMeter is probably more well known to Pirates Fans as the Cincinnati Reds utility man from the 2019 season; spending the majority of his time in the outfield, but also seeing action at his more natural infield spots. So, he’s an infielder by trade, that can also play a little outfield; a role that four out of the five guys left in Major League camp can-and have-filled in their professional careers, with Castillo as the lone infield specific utility man.

As far as I can tell, currently, this move truly makes little sense. Prior to last evening I was more than content rolling into the season with a version of Newman at SS, Tucker at 2B, Castillo backing them up and either Chavis or Park playing the super utility role on the bench. Not this is an ideal or finalized portion of the roster by any means, but at least I could logically work it out in my mind, considering the current options.

Be that as it may, this isn’t the situation the Pirates are left with at the moment. Instead, it is one that we will have to see work itself out. I just don’t know why, and I can’t exactly see how.

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!

4 thoughts on “Pirates Middle Infield Battle Is Heating Up

  1. You’re too kind, Craig. This trade made zero sense. The best explanation I’ve seen anyone make is Cherington’s obsession with finding a Justin Turner type of feather for his cap before the prospects take over. An additional blindfolded dart toss where there were already four or more. If they were that interested, then just claim him on waivers–which would still make little sense but at least some in that they didn’t give up anything.

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    1. One would think. Although with the 28 man roster for the first month of the season, it could delay the inevitable.

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