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Inbox: Is shortstop really a need for Pirates?

Beat reporter Adam Berry fields offseason questions from fans
December 5, 2018

Is it really that important for the Buccos to get a shortstop this offseason? I like what I've heard about Cole Tucker, and I bet Kevin Newman gets better with more experience. I would rather have another pitcher. -- Frank K., PittsburghGood place to start with the Winter Meetings almost

Is it really that important for the Buccos to get a shortstop this offseason? I like what I've heard about Cole Tucker, and I bet Kevin Newman gets better with more experience. I would rather have another pitcher.
-- Frank K., Pittsburgh

Good place to start with the Winter Meetings almost upon us, because shortstop seems to be their only unsettled position. Right field was a question mark, but Lonnie Chisenhall should be the answer while Gregory Polanco is recovering.
At this point, Newman and Erik Gonzalez are their top options at shortstop. I think it's worth noting that general manager Neal Huntington referred to those two as "an interesting pair of options" and "a solid starting point." At no point did he say they're done searching for an upgrade. He said just the opposite, actually: "It does not mean that we'll stop looking."
I still think it would make sense for them to acquire a veteran shortstop to shore up their infield defense and at least split time with Newman as the rookie continues to adjust to the speed of the game. Gonzalez would still have a place on the roster as a super-utility guy, which they'll need with Adam Frazier taking over at second base.
Beyond next season, they should be able to fill the job from within. I agree that Newman should improve with more experience, and evaluators believe Tucker has a higher ceiling. Tucker will spend next season in Triple-A, putting him in line for a promotion late next year or more likely in 2020.

As for adding a pitcher: I don't see them bringing in a starter unless they first move Ivan Nova, who has one more year on his contract. They likely won't get involved in the late-inning relief market because they're set with Felipe Vazquez, Keone Kela, Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez (with Edgar Santana returning in 2020). They have room for another lefty, but pursuing a middle reliever and a shortstop shouldn't be an "either/or" situation.
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I'm a little nervous about Chris Archer and Joe Musgrove needing surgery, even if they're not major procedures. Justin Verlander had core muscle surgery a few years ago and wasn't the same all year. Do the Pirates have enough starters to handle losing them?
-- Josh R., Erie
I've heard a lot of stories over the past few years that stress the importance of having a "normal" offseason as opposed to an offseason spent rehabbing, so your concern is valid. But Musgrove and Archer underwent surgery early enough that they should have plenty of time to rest, rehab and get ready for Spring Training.
The Pirates have rotation depth in Nick Kingham, Clay Holmes, Steven Brault (if they stretch him out as a starter again), J.T. Brubaker and non-roster invitee Alex McRae. They're not sure things, but they could fill a spot right away. Mitch Keller -- the Pirates' top prospect per MLB Pipeline -- won't be ready on Opening Day but could join the fray later next summer, giving them one higher-upside option.
If the season started today, what would the team look like?
-- Matthew D., Wheeling, W.V.

Love this question, Matthew. We're a long way from having to worry about the Opening Day roster, but let's make a projection using players currently on the roster who are expected to be healthy on March 28 ...
Rotation:Jameson Taillon, Archer, Trevor Williams, Musgrove, Nova
Bullpen: Vazquez, Kela, Crick, Rodriguez, Brault, Kingham, Nick Burdi
Lineup: 2B Frazier, CF Starling Marte, LF Corey Dickerson, 1B Josh Bell, C Francisco Cervelli, RF Chisenhall, 3B Colin Moran, SS Newman
Bench: C Elias Diaz, 3B Jungho Kang, INF Gonzalez, INF/OF Pablo Reyes, C Jacob Stallings
I don't feel great about my bench picks, but Stallings is out of options and Reyes is in there as someone who can play around the outfield. It's tough to find a fit for Kevin Kramer or Jose Osuna if the Pirates carry three catchers, and a veteran shortstop could bump Reyes. Keep in mind this will change when Polanco returns, likely pushing the lefty-hitting Chisenhall to an otherwise righty-laden bench.
The last few bullpen spots are always tough, but I feel pretty good at the moment about Brault (their only other lefty) and Kingham (out of options). Burdi still has his Rule 5 Draft restrictions; if not Burdi, that spot could go to someone like Michael Feliz or Dovydas Neverauskas.
I don't understand trading Jordan Luplow. Seems like we gave up on a young outfielder who might be a pretty good hitter, switched utility players and got a couple of kids. Are the prospects anything special?
-- Dan E., Waynesburg

The Pirates definitely like Gonzalez, who will play some sort of role next season because he's out of options. But the player with the most upside in the deal might be 19-year-old right-hander Tahnaj Thomas, who was Cleveland's No. 30 prospect according to MLB Pipeline. The Pirates scouted him heavily in the Bahamas as an infielder, and they're really intrigued by how his athleticism has already transferred to the mound.

He's 19 in the low Minors, so obviously a lot could change before he reaches the big leagues -- and it could take a while for him to get there. But he's projectable at 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds, and he's already throwing two good pitches with signs that he'll develop a better changeup. He'll be an interesting prospect to watch.
The Pirates also like 19-year-old right-hander Dante Mendoza, a 12th-round Draft pick in 2017 and the cousin of lefty reliever Zach Britton, but Thomas has the higher ceiling.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and read his blog.