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First Pitch: The Future at Shortstop For the Pirates

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I wasn’t planning on talking about the shortstops in the Pirates’ minor league system just yet. We’ve got our season recaps coming up this month, including a look at Jordy Mercer’s 2016 season, and the future of the shortstop position. But it just seemed appropriate to discuss the shortstops on a day when I wrote a feature about Stephen Alemais, and when Kevin Newman was named the number three prospect in the Florida State League, and when I talked to Cole Tucker about some changes he is making to his offense this off-season. That Tucker interview will be for an upcoming article, although I’ll have some spoilers in here.

It’s not totally surprising that the Pirates have improved their shortstop depth in the minors. They used first round picks on shortstops in the 2014 and 2015 drafts, taking Tucker and Newman respectively. Their top international signing in 2013 was Dominican shortstop Adrian Valerio. They used a second round pick in 2015 on Kevin Kramer, and a third round pick in 2016 on Alemais.

Now they’ve got a borderline top 50 prospect in Newman, and some talented prospects behind him. Jordy Mercer is under team control through the 2019 season, and while he had a 1.3 fWAR, that only ranks him in the bottom third of the 31 shortstops with 400+ plate appearances this year. He’s had better years, with a 2.0 fWAR in 2014, and a 1.5 fWAR in half a season in 2013. But, at best, he’s a guy who ends up number 20 on that list of shortstops, mostly providing value for his defense, and not adding a lot of offensive value.

Mercer isn’t going to be blocking anyone in the long-term. In fact, we could run into a Clint Barmes/Jordy Mercer situation by the middle of the 2017 season, only this time it would be Mercer in the Barmes role, and Kevin Newman in Mercer’s role, slowly taking over the starting job as he adjusts to the majors.

Newman definitely leads the pack of shortstop prospects, and right now he looks like the starter of the future. Here’s a quick rundown of each shortstop, their projection, and what they’re working on to reach their upside. Note that I’m not including guys like Gift Ngoepe who project as defense-only options, with almost no hope of the offense improving.

Kevin Newman – Newman is the best hitter of the group. He doesn’t have much power, but does have a great ability to hit for average and get on base. He spent a lot of the 2016 season improving his defense, focusing on getting in an earlier starting position to make better jumps for the ball, working on funneling the ball and improving his glove work, and improving his routes to the ball. He’s shown some good progress this year, moving beyond the concerns last year that he might just end up a utility player.

Cole Tucker – Tucker has a similar upside to Newman, but is a lot more raw. This makes sense, as he’s almost three years younger than Newman, but spent most of the 2016 season a level below him. He’s got a good approach at the plate, and can make some solid contact, but hasn’t been consistent with that. The Pirates are working on a few adjustments with him during instructs, focusing on tapping into his 6′ 4″ frame to make solid contact on a more consistent basis. On the defensive side, he’s looking really smooth and fluid on the field these days, taking efficient routes to the ball and making a smooth and quick transition on the throw. He has a chance to develop more power than Newman, and could pass him if everything comes together. For now, he’s more of a project, who is understandably raw and behind Newman due to his age and experience.

Stephen Alemais – I wrote about Alemais today, and how his defense has been amazing, but his offense has been lacking. There’s no one in this group who can touch his defensive skills at shortstop, and that might be true of the entire system. The problem is that he had no offensive value in his pro debut. As I wrote today, the Pirates are trying to fix that by having him more upright and adding a load to his swing, increasing his ability to make solid contact. He doesn’t need to hit for a lot of power. If he just becomes a guy who hits for average with a lot of singles and occasional gap power, he’d be the best prospect on this list due to the defensive upgrade.

Adrian Valerio – Just like Tucker was a raw version of Newman, Valerio is a raw version of Alemais. He’s got a lot of defensive upside, and has the ability to hit and have some gap power, although he’s raw on each side. This isn’t so much because he needs to make adjustments to tap into his frame, as he’s smaller than a guy like Tucker. His issues come with control and taking a good approach to the game. On the field, he has good tools, but can be a bit sloppy and out of control. The same goes at the plate, where he gets outside of his game of hitting for average with gap power, and takes big, out of control cuts trying to hit for more power than he has. If he can control his game, then he’s got the tools on both sides to be a starter. He turns 20 next March, and is the youngest of this group, so there’s plenty of time to mature and adjust his game.

Kevin Kramer – We’re now getting to the point in the system where the shortstop prospects don’t project to stick at shortstop for the long-term. Kramer was a shortstop in college, but projects better at second base. He can still play shortstop, and can also play third base. It’s likely that he ends up a utility infielder in the long-term, with some of the above options beating him out for the starting shortstop and the starting second base spot. He didn’t have the best numbers in Bradenton this year, but made hard contact all year, and could very well end up like Adam Frazier and Max Moroff, who looked good at the level, then broke out with the numbers in Altoona. Like those two, he would also only be used at shortstop in the future as a depth or emergency option.

Pablo Reyes – Reyes is a similar situation to Kramer, except he has better skills at shortstop. His problems on the field are similar to Valerio, in that he can get a bit out of control, although he’s better about keeping things under control than Valerio. Again, the age is a factor here, as Reyes is three and a half years older. Offensively, he might have the best power of this group, and has great strikeout and walk ratios. He’s another guy who could break out the bat in Altoona next year, after seeing the Florida State League suppress his numbers in 2016.

**Instructs Report: Stephen Alemais Showing Better Offense, Still Amazing Defense. A look at what Alemais is working on this off-season.

**Kevin Newman Named Baseball America’s Number Three Prospect in the FSL. A further breakdown of Newman’s skills and ranking, and what he worked on this year.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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