Around the Horn: Pirates face decision at SS

Bucs have two promising options in Gonzalez, Newman

January 28th, 2019

With Spring Training approaching, it's time for an in-depth look at the Pirates' roster. This is the seventh part of a series checking in on their current and future options at each position. Next up: shortstop.

Around the Horn:3B | 2B | 1B | C | Bullpen | Rotation

Big question: Whose job is this?

It looks like the Bucs will enter Spring Training with a pair of options at shortstop. Gone is veteran , their Opening Day starter each of the past five years. Looking to take his place are and .

The Pirates have spoken highly of both infielders despite their lack of production in the Majors. Gonzalez was a slick-fielding but seldom-used utility man for the Indians the past three seasons. Newman was a well-regarded prospect viewed in recent years as Mercer's likely successor. At PiratesFest, general manager Neal Huntington compared Gonzalez to a young -- who was one of several free-agent shortstops on the market until signing a one-year deal with Toronto on Tuesday -- and Newman to a young Mercer.

But is that enough at such a critical defensive position? The Pirates can scarcely afford to take a step back at any spot if they're hanging most of their hopes for this year on internal improvement. At the very least, they need someone to step up and reinforce the strength of their team -- the pitching staff -- by playing consistently excellent defense.

"To protect those guys, who do you want playing behind them?" manager Clint Hurdle said. "You'd like a very dependable and dynamic fielder, absolutely."

There is a chance, however small, that the Pirates will acquire another shortstop before Opening Day. They previously checked in on possible upgrades, including and , and there are several free agents still available. The Pirates answered a big question entering last spring, remember, with the Feb. 22 trade for left fielder .

The new guy: Gonzalez

Gonzalez might be the early favorite to land the starting job, based on the way management has spoken about him. Hurdle said Pirates scouts "beat the table" for the 27-year-old from the Dominican Republic, describing him as a "dynamic" defender who was blocked in Cleveland by , Jose Ramirez and .

But Gonzalez never hit enough to earn an everyday role, slashing .263/.292/.389 with 79 strikeouts and nine walks in 275 plate appearances over 162 big league games. Perhaps those numbers will tick up with more consistent playing time. He's shown some encouraging indicators, including an average exit velocity of 89.6 mph and a 42.2 percent hard-hit rate last season, but he hit a lot of those balls on the ground.

All we can do for now is project and speculate, however, because Gonzalez has never been an everyday player in the big leagues. The thought of becoming one clearly intrigued Gonzalez when he met with local media at PiratesFest.

"I'm ready to play every day," he said. "If you play every day, your passion is like fire. Sometimes I played one day in two weeks -- just practice, practice. It's a little bit hard. Now, I feel like my passion is going to be on fire again because I'm going to play more."

The returning rookie: Newman

Newman didn't make a good first impression in Pittsburgh late last season. He hit just .209/.247/.231 with 23 strikeouts in 97 plate appearances, and he made four errors in the field. Club officials introduced a possible explanation for his poor performance at PiratesFest, saying Newman was exhausted and down 10 pounds. Hurdle said he expects to see a different player this spring.

The optimistic outlook for Newman is that he will be like Mercer in the field -- steady, not flashy -- with a higher average, less power and more speed. He's still the same player who hit .302/.350/.407 with 28 steals in 109 games for Triple-A Indianapolis last season, and he's only 25 years old. He was the 19th overall pick in the 2015 Draft, and he has consistently ranked among the Pirates' top 10 prospects according to MLB Pipeline.

Interestingly, the Pirates have used Newman at second base as well as shortstop. He worked out there last spring while Mercer and prospect never moved off of shortstop. So even if Newman doesn't claim the shortstop job, he'd likely crack the roster as a utility infielder.

Depth: ,

The Pirates typically like to have three players on their roster who are capable of playing shortstop. They'll have two in Gonzalez and Newman. If they acquire a more experienced shortstop, there's No. 3. If not, Reyes and Kramer would be the most likely candidates. Reyes might have a leg up given his ability to play shortstop and the outfield, while Kramer is a backup option at second, third and shortstop.

In the pipeline: Tucker, Oneil Cruz, Stephen Alemais, Ji-Hwan Bae

This is probably the deepest position in Pittsburgh's farm system. Tucker, who nearly cracked MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list, could be competing for the big league job this time next year. Tucker, 22, hit just .259/.333/.356 last season for Double-A Altoona but demonstrated his potential with an excellent stint in the Arizona Fall League. He'll begin the season in Triple-A.

Cruz, MLB Pipeline's No. 96 overall prospect for 2019, may be Pittsburgh's most interesting young player. The 20-year-old has an elite arm and immense power potential in his 6-foot-6 frame, and he showed both while slashing .286/.343/.488 with 14 homers as a 19-year-old in the South Atlantic League. There will be talk of a position change due to his size, but he spent all of last season at shortstop. He'll likely begin this season with Class A Advanced Bradenton in the Florida State League, typically a more challenging circuit for hitters.

Alemais, Pittsburgh's No. 18 prospect, played second base last season for Altoona, but he's a capable defender at shortstop as well. Bae is still years away from the Majors after signing with the Pirates last March. The 19-year-old slashed .271/.362/.349 and stole 10 bases over 35 games in the Gulf Coast League.