Kang, Gonzalez to start on left side of infield

Pirates say Moran and Newman also have important roles this season

March 18th, 2019

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates ended two position battles on Monday, naming their starting shortstop and their starting third baseman.

Kang beat out returning third baseman Colin Moran for the starting job, while Gonzalez claimed the Opening Day shortstop role over rookie Kevin Newman. Moran will move into a corner-infield utility role to begin the season, continuing to play third base while getting work at first base as he did in Monday’s 4-2 win over the Rays. Newman still has a chance to make the team as a reserve middle infielder playing behind Gonzalez at shortstop and Adam Frazier at second.

“Not an easy decision. All four guys, in their own way, had legitimate claims to become the regular,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “We’ve let them know that this is not a 162-game, set-in-stone decision. We’ve also let them know that these guys aren’t looking over their shoulders, and this isn’t going to be an every-other-game type of situation.

“Gonzalez and Kang are going to be given every chance in the world to hold on to these jobs. Moran and Newman are going to play important parts for this organization, for this Major League team, short-term, moderate-term and long-term. … They’re going to play a meaningful role on this club this year.”

Kang and Gonzalez represent the Pirates’ best chance to upgrade their infield defense, which was an issue throughout last season. Gonzalez came to Pittsburgh this offseason with a reputation as a dynamic defender, and he has shown his range and athleticism throughout the spring despite making two errors. Kang reported to camp in excellent physical condition after missing most of the past two seasons due to legal issues and injuries, and the Pirates are confident he can play above-average defense at third base.

“We believe this is the best decision we can make right now based on defensive range, overall athleticism,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “Now we need to see how it plays combined with them on the left side. It gives us an opportunity to have very gifted defenders on that side of the diamond.”

Kang could also provide Pittsburgh with much-needed power. He hit 36 home runs in 229 games for the Pirates in 2015-16, and he leads the team with five homers this spring. There are questions about how Kang will handle the speed of the game and top-flight Major League pitching after so much time away -- he has 13 strikeouts in 28 at-bats this spring -- but the Pirates are willing to bet on him returning to form.

“We just felt like Kang and Gonzalez, at this point in time, were our best defensive tandem," Huntington said. "That’s a big part of why we went with this decision. Kang’s power is obviously a threat; he’s going to get a base hit somewhere along the way. At the same time, we still like Newman and Moran and believe they’re going to be a big part of this club.”

Moran played 10 innings at first base for the Astros in 2017 and 17 games at the position in the Minors. He looked comfortable in his first spring appearance at first, making two diving plays. The 26-year-old hit .277/.340/.407 with 11 homers in 144 games as a rookie and said this was a productive Spring Training even if he didn’t win the job.

“I’m just happy to be able to contribute in any way possible,” Moran said. “I don’t care what role I have. I just want to help the team win. Whatever they need from me, I’ll try and be ready every day.”

Newman is approaching his opportunity the same way. He has plenty of experience at shortstop and second base, and he handled himself well at second on Monday. But the Pirates must first decide if he fits on the Opening Day bench or if he’s best served going back to Triple-A.

“The only thing I’m thinking about going forward is trying to make the team,” Newman said. “The goal is to be in the Major Leagues, to play in the Major Leagues. Focus has definitely shifted now to kind of whatever the Pirates need out of me, whatever they see me doing to contribute to the team.”