For the better part of the last decade, the Pittsburgh Pirates had their shortstop situation figured out each season thanks to the presence of Jack Wilson. That changed in July 2009, when Wilson was traded to the Seattle Mariners, along with starting pitcher Ian Snell, in exchange for Jeff Clement, Ronny Cedeno, Nathan Adcock, Aaron Pribanic, and Brett Lorin. The 2010 season marked just the second time since the year 2000 that Wilson wasn’t the opening day starter at shortstop (Wilson missed the first two games of the season in 2002).
Replacing Wilson was one of the return pieces in that trade: Ronny Cedeno. Cedeno was considered a throw-in at the time of the deal, with the main pieces being Jeff Clement, and the three pitching prospects. Seattle added Cedeno as their starting shortstop prior to the 2009 season, but after watching him struggle with a .167/.213/.290 line in 186 at-bats, they moved on to Wilson. Cedeno rebounded with the Pirates, hitting for a .258/.307/.394 line in 155 at-bats to finish off the 2009 season.
The Pirates added Bobby Crosby over the off-season to compete with Cedeno for the shortstop position, but mostly to push Cedeno. Cedeno’s best asset is his defense, and when he’s on his game his defense at shortstop is one of the best in the league. That’s the problem. Cedeno’s biggest issue is his lack of consistency. Take a look at his UZR as an example. Cedeno finished the 2010 season with a -4.0 UZR/150 at short. At one point in the season, he led the league. For most of the season he had a positive number. The numbers fluctuated throughout the year, before collapsing down the stretch.
Crosby didn’t provide much of a challenge for Cedeno, hitting for a .224/.301/.295 line in 156 at-bats with the Pirates, before being traded to Arizona at the deadline in a package for Chris Snyder and Pedro Ciriaco. While Cedeno struggled on defense after Crosby left, his offense spiked, with a .274/.304/.411 line from August to the end of the season, after putting up a .246/.286/.365 line prior to August. Overall Cedeno finished with a .256/.293/.382 line.
Cedeno finished the year with a 1.0 WAR, which made him a below average shortstop in 2010. That’s not surprising, considering that the 29 shortstops with 400 or more plate appearances in 2010 combined for a .265/.319/.385 line, which is slightly higher than Cedeno’s line. Cedeno also struggled on defense at the end of the year, which really hurt him. Those 29 shortstops with 400 or more plate appearances, Cedeno included, had an average WAR of 2.1, which basically means that Cedeno produced one less win than the average shortstop in 2010.
The 2011 Starter
Cedeno is under team control for one for season, eligible for arbitration for one final time this off-season. It’s likely that the Pirates will tender him a contract, since he will probably cost around $2 M, and because the Pirates don’t really have any options to replace him. The free agent market doesn’t provide any attainable upgrades, and unless the Pirates can manage a trade, Cedeno will be the opening day starter.
The Pirates do have two internal shortstop options who could be in the majors to start the 2011 season. Those two players are Argenis Diaz and Pedro Ciriaco. Both players are similar in that they have strong defense, and lack the hitting skills needed to be more than a backup option. Diaz is out of options, so he will either have to open the season on the 25-man roster, or be placed on waivers and removed from the 40-man roster.
I predict that the latter will happen, as Ciriaco is arguably better than Diaz. The Pirates could start with Diaz as the major league backup, and have Ciriaco open the season in AAA, but there might not be room for Ciriaco at AAA with middle infielders Chase d’Arnaud, Jordy Mercer, and Josh Harrison likely making the jump from AA to AAA, not to mention the chance that Brian Friday will also be at the AAA level. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ciriaco open the season as the backup to Cedeno, possibly even challenging him for playing time.
Ciriaco and Diaz both have the upside of Cedeno, to the point where they could be an average major league shortstop due to their defense. Cedeno was a below average shortstop this year due to his inconsistencies. If those issues exist at the start of the 2011 season, I could see the Pirates making the switch to Ciriaco. Ciriaco probably wouldn’t be any better at the plate than Cedeno, but he might be more consistent on defense, and that’s the most important thing considering what the Pirates have to work with to start the season.
Over the last two years I’ve seen a lot of Chase d’Arnaud and Jordy Mercer between high-A and AA. After his 2009 season between West Virginia and Lynchburg, d’Arnaud looked like the shortstop of the future for the Pirates. His struggles at the AA level this season have that projection in doubt, although Chase wasn’t bad enough to write him off as a candidate to take over in Pittsburgh one day.
D’Arnaud hit for a .247/.331/.377 line in 530 at-bats at the AA level this year. The good news was that d’Arnaud still displayed a lot of the skills that made him look like the shortstop of the future in 2009. He had good plate patience, with a reasonable 19.2 strikeout rate, and while he saw a slight drop in his walk rate, he still managed a 9.2 BB%. He also hit for a good number of extra base hits, with his 33 doubles ranking in the top 10 in the Eastern League, and his nine triples leading the league.
He struggled early in the season with a few issues, most notably a recovery from pneumonia at the start of the season, plus an issue with his swing that he worked to correct during the middle of the year. Playing in Altoona was tough at the start of the season, as it was the coldest weather the California native has played in to start the season. D’Arnaud rebounded in the second half, with a .262/.343/.419 line in 191 at-bats after the All-Star break, compared to his .239/.324/.354 line in 339 at-bats before the break. He also turned it on in the playoffs, with a .321/.421/.679 line and 3 homers in 28 at-bats.
Some may point to Mercer as having the better season, due to his .282 average, but Mercer’s overall performance was on the same level with d’Arnaud, if not slightly lower. Mercer had a .282/.329/.373 line, seeing a drop in his walk rate, as well as a drop in his power production. In 2009 Mercer showed good power for a shortstop, with 36 doubles and 10 homers in 513 at-bats, leading to a .400 SLG. He had the doubles this year, but lacked the homers, finishing with a .373 SLG, which is worse when you consider that his average was up by almost 30 points this year. His isolated power (SLG minus AVG) in 2009 was .145, and dropped to .091 in 2010. Mercer is currently playing in the Arizona Fall League, where he will hopefully be able to work on his issues with walks and power.
D’Arnaud played shortstop most of the season, although the Pirates rotated Mercer in more towards the end of the season, moving Chase to second base. That alignment stuck during the playoffs. I wouldn’t read too much in to that, as the Pirates did the exact same thing in the 2009 Carolina League playoffs. You could read in to this that the Pirates prefer Mercer at short, but you could also read in to it that the Pirates prefer Josh Harrison at third base, rather than second, and prefer d’Arnaud over Mercer to replace Harrison at second.
I expect d’Arnaud and Mercer to both move up to AAA to start the 2011 season. Both players have the chance to be in the majors by June, although that’s far from a guarantee. Mercer is going to have to see a rebound in the power department, and also needs to improve his walk rate. One issue I’ve noticed with Mercer is that he’s prone to strikeouts on low and away breaking balls, in part due to his long swing. That’s going to be a problem as he moves up, and is one of the reasons I favor d’Arnaud over him.
Chase gets the nod because despite the poor 2010 average, he had a better walk rate and better power than Mercer, who was considered an offensive minded shortstop when he was drafted due to his power potential. D’Arnaud will need to improve his hitting, mostly in the area of hitting for average. He was unlucky this season with a .293 BABIP, down from his .324-.347 range in the lower levels (despite the level, a player’s BABIP usually stays in the same range throughout his career). When I talked to Chase in August, he indicated the low BABIP was probably a result of the issues with his swing.
D’Arnaud came around at the end of the 2010 season at the plate. If he can carry that over to the AAA level to start the 2011 season, it could be all he needs to propel himself to the majors by June. He has good plate patience, with a good walk rate, has good power for a middle infielder, and from what I’ve witnessed, he’s good enough at shortstop to be a starter in the majors. D’Arnaud is also a threat on the bases, with 31/39 stolen bases in 2009, and 33/40 stolen bases in 2010. If he can get his average back on track, d’Arnaud has a chance to be an average to above-average overall shortstop in the majors, possibly as early as the middle of the 2011 season.
The Pirates do have some options in the lower levels, most notably Brock Holt, Jarek Cunningham, and Elevys Gonzalez. Holt seems more like a second base prospect in the long run, although he played shortstop this year. He had surgery on his knee to repair a torn MCL, so that should be a situation to watch to determine whether the injury will affect his range. Cunningham had surgery in 2009 to repair a torn ACL, and the injury may make him a second base prospect, as he played at second in 2010 and his range looked questionable even at that position. Gonzalez is capable of handling the shortstop position on defense, but I’m not sold on his bat amounting to more than a bench player in the majors. The Pirates drafted Drew Maggi out of Arizona State this year, and I project Maggi to be a similar player to d’Arnaud. Jorge Bishop is also a potential long term solution, but he’s very raw, having only played two years of professional ball, and he’s a long ways from the majors.
Overall the Pirates have a lot of middle infield options who can play shortstop, but no one who has stepped up to lock down the position going forward. Each shortstop throughout the system has one major issue which prevents them from being the consensus long term answer. Those problems include defensive concerns (Holt, Cunningham), walk rate/power struggles (Mercer), batting average struggles (d’Arnaud), or a lack of experience/projectability (Maggi, Gonzalez, Bishop). The best bet looks to be d’Arnaud, as his drawbacks are the easiest to fix.