The Pittsburgh Pirates came in to the 2011 season looking for a long term option to emerge at the shortstop position. They had signed Ronny Cedeno to a one year, $1.85 M deal, replacing his final year of arbitration. The deal also included an option for $3 M in 2012. Despite the option, the expectation at the start of the year was that Cedeno would be replaced by mid-season, and would be gone in 2012.
Cedeno started out slow in April, with a .192 average in 73 at-bats, and a .485 OPS. He bounced back in May with a .286 average and a .773 OPS. To add to these numbers, his defense was strong to start the year, which ruled out any possibility that he would be gone mid-season. Cedeno had a decent month of June, hitting for a .271 average with a .694 OPS, and continuing his strong play at defense. However, a concussion in July put him on the disabled list, opening the door for Chase d’Arnaud to get some playing time.
D’Arnaud entered the year as the organization’s top shortstop prospect, but was coming off a down year at the AA level. He bounced back in 2011 at the AAA level, hitting for a .280/.347/.418 line at the time of his call-up. That included a poor start to the season where d’Arnaud hit for a .217 average and a .696 OPS in April. In May he hit for a .329 average and an .811 OPS, and followed that up with a .299 average and a .794 OPS in June.
D’Arnaud didn’t carry his hitting success over to the majors while Cedeno was out. He finished the 2011 season with a .217 average and a .528 OPS. His defense was also rough, showing that he might have been called up too early. The Pirates also used Brandon Wood at shortstop throughout the year, and especially when Cedeno was injured, although Wood wasn’t much better than d’Arnaud. Wood did have better defense, but not good defense, and his .220 average and .625 OPS wasn’t much of an offensive upgrade.
Cedeno returned and took the shortstop job back, hitting for a .275 average and a .654 OPS through the end of August. He struggled in September at the plate, with a .170 average and a .479 OPS, all while the Pirates gave some playing time to guys like d’Arnaud and Pedro Ciriaco. Cedeno finished the 2011 season with a .249 average and a .636 OPS. The strong point was his defense. His 6.8 UZR/150 ranked 9th in the majors among 22 qualifying shortstops, just 0.1 point back from 8th place.
Entering 2012 Without a Long Term Answer
The debate this off-season will probably focus around whether Cedeno should be retained. The Pirates have the $3 M option for the 2012 season, which comes with a $200 K buyout. They didn’t see a long term answer emerge in 2011, so the 2012 season will be similar to the 2011 season, with the team looking for a stop gap option while their upper level guys develop.
The main difference between last year and this year is that Cedeno is now coming off a season where he put up strong defensive numbers. He always had the defensive skills, but a lack of consistency led to poor results in previous years. If there’s one position you want strong defense from, it’s the shortstop position. If Cedeno can repeat his defensive production in 2012, it would make up for his lack of hitting, and would serve as a solid stopgap until a better option emerged.
If the Pirates wanted to go with a defensive only shortstop, another internal option could be Pedro Ciriaco. Ciriaco was called back and forth from Indianapolis about 1000 times this year, and only started four games, while playing in three others, ending up with 34.1 innings on the field. That’s hardly a good sample size, but his UZR/150 was 8.2, which was higher than Cedeno. Ciriaco has always been known as a strong defensive shortstop, although his bat has been poor, despite his .303 average and .748 OPS in 33 at-bats this year. In his career at the AAA level, Ciriaco has a .252 average and a .622 OPS in 753 at-bats.
Ciriaco would cost $2.4 M less than Cedeno, after the buyout is considered, and might come with similar all-around production. The downside is that the Pirates have seen what Cedeno could do over a full season, while Ciriaco is largely unproven. The switch to Ciriaco seems unlikely, as the Pirates didn’t really make him a focus when he was called up, opting to use guys like Brandon Wood and Chase d’Arnaud instead. That gives us some indication of how they view Ciriaco.
The two options for the Pirates in the upper levels are d’Arnaud and Jordy Mercer. D’Arnaud only had 288 at-bats at the AAA level, and struggled at the end of the year after a finger injury in late July. When he was in the majors, he didn’t look ready, offensively or defensively. Some added time in AAA could help, although it will be tough to get with Jordy Mercer now at the AAA level.
Mercer, like d’Arnaud, had a down year in AA in 2010. Unlike d’Arnaud, Mercer was left at the AA level to start the 2011 season. He bounced back this year with a .268 average and an .816 OPS, with the notable stat being his 13 homers in 265 at-bats. Mercer was known as an offense-first shortstop with some pop in his bat when he was drafted, but we’ve yet to see much of that offense, outside of ten home runs in Lynchburg in 2009.
Mercer went to the AAA level, but struggled with a .239 average and a .689 OPS. He did, however, hit six more homers in 226 at-bats, finishing the season with 19 homers in 491 at-bats, to lead the Pirates’ minor league system. Not only did Mercer have the home run numbers, but he also hit 30 doubles, putting him at 30 or more in each of the last three seasons.
When comparing the two options, d’Arnaud has better defense at the shortstop position, and has better speed. Mercer’s defense can play at the shortstop position, but he gets a lot of his value from his bat, especially when he hits like he did at the AA level this year. Having both options at the same level shouldn’t be a big problem, as they played in the same infield in 2009 and 2010. The best approach might be for Mercer to work on his hitting, and d’Arnaud to work on his defense at shortstop, since that allows each to improve on their areas of value.
In the lower levels the Pirates don’t have a standout prospect. Instead they have a lot of guys like Mercer and d’Arnaud, who have a standout skill, but aren’t all around players. Drew Maggi has a lot of speed, and is very athletic, but is also very raw, and profiles similar to d’Arnaud as far as his skill set goes. Brock Holt and Jarek Cunningham have both played shortstop in the past, but both profile better as second basemen. If one of them had to play shortstop, Holt would be the better option.
Shortstop is the hardest position to fill, and we seem to be past the era that was rich in strong all-around shortstops. A player who excels in one area can be good enough to be a starter. The Pirates don’t have anyone who profiles as an all-around candidate, but they do have several candidates to excel in an individual area.