Let’s begin this position preview with a preface: The middle-infield positions are the most flexible on the Pirates’ depth chart. With a batch of former and current top prospects listed as shortstops, it’s likely one or two of them see time at second base, while others are in the outfield or on the bench.
With that said, let’s see how second base shapes up right now:
Starter: Adam Frazier
Frazier is one of the few remaining Pirates whose name has come up multiple times in trade rumors this offseason. For good reason, too: He’s a 29-year-old affordable middle infielder who makes solid contact and provides a good glove. Though some teams (like the Blue Jays) could use middle-infield depth, many of those who were searching found their second baseman on the free-agent market instead of dealing prospects.
Like many Pirates -- and Major Leaguers in general -- Frazier had a dip in offensive production last season, which likely cooled some of his trade value. But his .762 OPS from 2016-19 was above league average, and his K% in ‘17 and ‘19 were in the top 6% of the league. Signs of that consistent contact showed up when he had a 12-game hitting streak from Aug. 29-Sept. 9, a period in which he hit .368.
“I think he shortened his swing up,” manager Derek Shelton said of Frazier during the stretch. “I think at times he had gotten long and got away from what makes him effective. I think we’ve seen him shorten his swing up and make contact and put the ball in play.”
Backups: Kevin Newman, Phillip Evans
Newman played nearly even parts as shortstop and second baseman last year (23 games to 20 games, respectively). For a player who was listed as having a 30-grade power tool in MLB Pipeline’s prospect rankings, the former Arizona Wildcat slugged .446 with 20 doubles, six triples and 12 homers in 2019 before cooling off in the shortened season (.556 OPS in 44 games).
“There were a lot of good hitters that we saw fell into that,” Shelton said, “and that’s one of the reasons I’m really looking forward to 162 games, because the ebbs and flows can even themselves out.
Evans is an infield Swiss Army knife, so expect him to be listed as a backup or depth at all four positions. He started out hot on offense, going 14-for-39 (.359) with two doubles and a homer last year before his season ended due to a collision with Gregory Polanco that concussed Evans and fractured his jaw.
Depth: Cole Tucker, Wilmer Difo, Kevin Kramer
This is not to say that Tucker wouldn’t be a worthy replacement at second base defensively, but rather that if Tucker is moved from his natural shortstop spot, it would likely be to the outfield or as a bench option. After 93 games’ worth of playing time, the fan favorite hasn’t shown much reason to have him in the starting lineup every day, posting a .215/.260/.324 line and only one stolen base on one attempt.
Difo, 28, spent the past decade in the Nationals’ system and recorded a .657 OPS in 373 games while getting most of his starts at second base (107 games) and shortstop (89). Kramer, 27, has scuffled in two Major League seasons with the Pirates, batting 12-for-79 (.152) with one double in 43 games.
In the pipeline: Nick Gonzales, Ji-Hwan Bae
Gonzales will be the inheritor of the position by all accounts. The seventh overall pick in the 2020 Draft has yet to make his pro debut, but indications from the alternate training site pointed toward a player much like the one who won Cape Cod League MVP honors in 2019. He’s been a hitting machine at every point in his amateur career, and until further notice, assume the same in the Minors.
Bae has yet to play above High-A ball. The left-handed hitter, who is No. 9 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 10 second-base prospects list (Gonzales is No. 2), has incredible speed and creates a lot of contact, though he still has room to grow in the power department. He won’t come near the Majors this year, but a solid Minor League season would create a good problem for the Pirates in 2022 and beyond.