BRADENTON, Fla. – I’ve written several times this offseason that shortstop is the biggest area of need for the Pirates. They’re currently going with a Spring Training battle of Erik Gonzalez and Kevin Newman for the starting role. I don’t want to say that there aren’t a lot of areas for a potential upgrade on this team, but shortstop is the most glaring.
I don’t think I have a unique opinion here. It’s been a pretty widely held belief that the Pirates need a shortstop. Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington acknowledged as much today when discussing what the team needs look like at this point.
“I think externally, shortstop,” Huntington said. “Internally, we like our guys. We like Kevin Newman and Erik Gonzalez. They’re different types of players, but we feel both can do what we would have been able to get via the free agent market.”
Huntington went on to say that if there was an external move that made sense — not just at shortstop, but any position — they’d “go in that direction.” He’s not going to come out and say that they’re looking for outside help, and he didn’t do that when asked today. But as of right now, it looks like the shortstop position is set to be a competition with the guys currently on the roster.
It doesn’t sound like the winner of the shortstop competition will be playing in a platoon if the Pirates can help it.
“Perfect world, you find one guy, because if you have two, the one playing is always looking over his shoulder without the ability to play through,” Huntington said. “They’re different types of players, with Gonzalez the athletic dynamic defender with some bat. Newman, a solid steady on both sides of the ball, and again I’ve said it a lot and continue to say it, he’s a different guy this spring than we saw last September. … Looking forward to seeing Kevin Newman, the top 100 prospect, the former first round pick, the guy that’s comfortable in where he’s going, going out to compete to win a job.”
The Pirates do love the defense from Gonzalez, and believe he can provide some offense. Huntington has compared him to Freddy Galvis, and Newman to Jordy Mercer. I’ve made the same comparison about Newman as far as his upside. I haven’t seen much of Gonzalez to know if that holds up, but everything I’ve read indicates this could be the case. Neither option is great, and you’re looking at a 1-2 WAR player in those cases.
I don’t know if the current free agent options are better, outside of Manny Machado, and I don’t think the Pirates are going to be signing Machado.
Maybe the Pirates will be right about their shortstops. Maybe they don’t need outside help as much as it seems they do. The biggest issue I see is that they’re aiming to contend while gambling on two unproven players to cover a starting role, all with enough payroll space to get more of a sure thing. But if these guys work out, then that won’t matter in the end.
If they don’t work out, then we might never hear the end of the decision to give the job to the spring winner of Gonzalez/Newman.
Middle Relief Options
Both Huntington and Clint Hurdle said that Francisco Liriano can still be a starting option, but that he was brought on this team for his abilities out of the bullpen, and his veteran presence.
“The intent of bringing him in was a left-hander with some versatility out of the pen with some veteran presence,” Huntington said of Liriano.
Both pointed out that Liriano has done well against lefties and in the first time through the lineup. He’s going to have some competition this spring though, as fellow non-roster invitee Tyler Lyons will also be competing for a similar role in the bullpen.
“We like the edge,” Hurdle said of Lyons. “There was a time when he was pretty much a reverse split guy. He’s got the ability, and has shown the ability to get out really good left-handers as well. To pitch an inning, to go right-left, to pitch more than that, we’ll see how that plays out. But there’s playoff experience, there’s experience within our division, and there’s a guy who has faced big hitters in higher leverage situations.”
Liriano and Lyons both profile as LOOGY options at this point, although the Pirates have been hesitant to use a guy in that type of role. They’ve preferred to have their relievers capable of pitching a complete inning and facing batters from both sides. I asked Hurdle if they might reconsider that approach with those two pitchers.
“There’s a lot of things to take into consideration,” Hurdle said. “We’ll watch how they pitch this spring, what kind of stuff they’re bringing to the table, and as the Spring Training season comes to a close, depending on our schedule, how many pitchers we take, the amount of days off, all of that can play in that equation as well. Right now we’re going to try and maximize our guys, use the best guys against different parts of the lineup that are going to provide us with a leverage opportunity.”
As for other relievers, the Pirates signed right-hander Brandon Maurer to a minor league deal, and he could also be in the mix for a middle relief role, and possibly more. It was only a few years ago that Maurer was a closer in the majors, and Huntington noted that the Pirates signed him with the hopes of getting him back to that point.
“This is the type of guy that we’ve had success with in the past, of helping him get back to when he was really good, and that’s the goal here,” Huntington said. “He’s another guy that has a clear path to make our club. If he’s capable of pitching the way Brandon Maurer is capable, it’s going to be an interesting arm in the back of that pen.”
The good thing is that Maurer wouldn’t need to immediately go to the late innings, as the Pirates are pretty well set there with Felipe Vazquez and Keone Kela, plus Richard Rodriguez and Kyle Crick. If he can get anything close to what he was a few years ago, he’d be a strong addition to that group.
Other Roster Notes
**Clint Hurdle confirmed that Lonnie Chisenhall will have the right field job while Gregory Polanco is out. Melky Cabrera will be competing for the fourth outfield role, and it sounds like he’s the leader for that spot heading into camp.
“If Melky plays to the best of his ability, and Lonnie plays to the best of his ability, then it will be interesting to see where we can take it,” Hurdle said.
Both Hurdle and Huntington mentioned that Cabrera’s veteran leadership can also play a role, similar to what they had with guys like David Freese in the past.
**Huntington mentioned Francisco Cervelli as an option for first base when Josh Bell needed a break. Chisenhall could also be an option to back up the position when Polanco returns.
**Kevin Kramer was mentioned as an option to back up second base, although he’ll likely start the season in the minors. Huntington also mentioned Cole Tucker as an option for the middle infield later in the season.
**Possibly the most surprising thing to me was that Huntington described the third base role as an open competition, saying that Colin Moran and Jung Ho Kang will battle for the job this spring. They could split time at the role, but it wouldn’t be a platoon situation.