The big debate at shortstop for the Pirates over the last few years has been the balance between offense and defense. It’s rare to get a shortstop who is good on both sides of the ball. The guys who can do that are usually star players. Most teams end up choosing between a good offensive shortstop with poor defense, or a good defensive shortstop with poor offense.
The Pirates had examples of both types of players on their 2015 roster. For the last few years they’ve trended on the defensive side, going with guys like Clint Barmes and Jordy Mercer as their shortstop options, despite poor offense from those guys. They started the 2015 season with Mercer as the starter, but eventually they saw Jung-ho Kang play his way into a starting role, which led to him getting much more time at the shortstop position.
Kang represents the opposite of Mercer. He had some of the best offense on the team, especially in the second half. However, he rated as a poor defender. There were 38 shortstops in the majors this year with 400+ innings at the position (going with the low number here to include Kang). Out of that group, Mercer ranked 15th in UZR/150 with a 2.0 and Kang ranked 27th with a -6.4. However, in terms of Plus/Minus and Defensive Runs Saved, they were about even. That said, Mercer’s numbers this year were way down in each category from where they were last year.
Offensively, Kang was way ahead of Mercer. He had a .356 wOBA and a 130 wRC+, which ranked third and second respectively among the 32 shortstops with 400+ plate appearances. Mercer finished 31st and 28th with his .265 wOBA and 68 wRC+. For perspective, the league averages at the position were .297 and 85.
Mercer did have a bit of an up and down season. He struggled at the start of the year, posting a .192/.248/.223 line in 142 plate appearances through the month of May. That was enough to earn Kang more starts at shortstop. Mercer did bounce back, posting a .287/.327/.399 line in 156 plate appearances from June until his injury in late July. That got Mercer more time, with Kang moving over to third base a bit more often during this stretch.
After returning from his injury, Mercer got off to a slow start, with a .207/.277/.241 line up until the day that Kang went down due to Chris Couglan’s slide. Mercer stepped up the rest of the year after Kang went down, putting up a .286/.328/.413 line in 67 plate appearances for the remainder of the season.
When Mercer is hitting, it makes the most sense to play him at shortstop, as his defense is much better. When it’s on, his offense still isn’t close to what Kang can put up, but the defensive upgrades make him worth the start. It also helps that Kang was stronger defensively at third base, which means having both of them on the left side of the infield really helps the defense, while keeping both bats in the lineup, and ultimately coming down to the difference between Mercer and Josh Harrison’s offense, and not Mercer and Kang.
Unfortunately, Kang went down with a pretty serious injury at the end of the season, and there’s no telling at this point how or when he could return. If he’s able to return early next year, that would create an interesting debate between having Kang’s consistent hitting and poor defense, versus Mercer’s stronger defense and inconsistent hitting.
If Kang can return healthy, then the Pirates have their shortstop situation locked down for the 2016 season. Even if he misses some time, they’ll go with Mercer, who is under team control for three more seasons. Kang has four more seasons under team control, so the Pirates are set at the shortstop position for the next few years.
Down in the minors, they traded away one of the top upper level shortstop options when they sent JaCoby Jones out for Joakim Soria. Jones was improving his defense in his second year at the shortstop position, but still had a long way to go before he could be an asset with his defense. He still looked like an offense-first shortstop, with a lot of power, but poor plate patience and a lot of strikeouts.
Jones was a good prospect, but the Pirates are now in a situation where they can afford to trade shortstop prospects. As noted above, they don’t need a shortstop from the minors anytime soon. And in the lower levels of the minors, they have a lot of interesting shortstop options.
Kevin Newman was the first round pick this season, and fits a very common profile of hitter that the Pirates have been going after the last few years. He gets on base, hits for average, has speed, has some gap power, and plays good defense at a premium position. Despite poor numbers, Newman showed an advanced approach and a great work ethic in his pro debut, and eventually started showing flashes of his offensive capabilities. It’s likely that he will be moved up to Bradenton in 2016, and depending on the results, he could finish in Altoona by the end of the season.
I’d call Newman the shortstop of the future for the Pirates, but they have other options as well. Cole Tucker was the first round pick in 2014, and got a very aggressive push to West Virginia this year. The results were a bit mixed, and he had a slow start the first two months, but Tucker quickly adjusted and started hitting very well for one of the youngest players in the league. Unfortunately, he went down with labrum surgery at the end of the year, and probably won’t return until the second half in 2016. If he can play shortstop after the injury, then he’s still got the potential to be a starter at the position, with a similar profile to Newman.
Another guy with a similar skillset is Kevin Kramer, who was the second round pick for the Pirates this year. Playing on the same team as Newman for most of the year, Kramer got a lot of time at second base. He got a few games at shortstop in Morgantown and then in West Virginia after a late promotion. Kramer does all of the things that Newman does, although he’s probably going to be limited to second base in the future, since he’ll be at the same level as Newman. The Pirates could give him time at shortstop at the start of the year if they keep him in West Virginia.
One problem with that approach for Kramer is that the Pirates have another interesting shortstop prospect who spent his time in the GCL in 2015. Adrian Valerio was the top international signing for the Pirates in 2013, and from the time he signed until he reached the US, we received raving reviews about his defense at the position. After watching him this year, those reviews lived up to the hype. He’s a smooth defender with a strong arm, great hands, and a lot of speed that leads to a lot of range. The speed helps him on the bases, and combines nicely with his tendency for solid contact to the gaps, which leads to extra base hits. He’s yet another guy who could hit for average, get on base, and hit for some gap power, while providing speed and strong defense at shortstop. The difference here is that Valerio’s defense ranks ahead of everyone else in the lower levels, and might only be rivaled by Gift Ngoepe throughout the entire system.
The Pirates gave Cole Tucker an aggressive push to West Virginia last year. It will be interesting to see if they do the same thing with Valerio this time around. If that happens, then they’ll have three shortstops at the start of the year between two levels, which would probably push Kramer to second base again. And when Cole Tucker returns, they’d once again have too many shortstops for the two A-ball teams, which might be solved by a few promotions.
Overall, the Pirates have built up some nice shortstop depth in the lower levels, with several players who can stick at the position, play strong defense, and provide some offensive value. None of them project to be star players at the position right now, but it wouldn’t be out of the question to expect one of them to emerge with Jordy Mercer’s defensive value, and more consistent hitting than Mercer has seen the last two seasons.