After deciding to part ways with shortstop Ronny Cedeno, the Pirates upgraded the position defensively last November by bringing Clint Barmes in on a two year deal. The 33-year-old had a pedigree for an impressive glove at short, and provided a solid glove for the Pirates in 2012.
The first two months of the season weren’t what he, nor Pittsburgh, expected. Barmes hit for just a .149 clip in April, followed by a .189 average in May. Barmes admitted to trying to do too much out of the chute, which resulted in his struggles at the plate. But the shortstop didn’t take his bat with him onto the field. Barmes had the National League’s best UZR for a shortstop in 2012, with a 15.3 UZR/150 mark from the shortstop position.
Despite the early offensive struggles, Barmes was able to put together solid numbers in his final three months of the season, Manager Clint Hurdle stuck with Barmes for the majority of the year. Prospect Jordy Mercer saw the next most appearances at the position (28), with Josh Harrison trailing at 25. Brock Holt, who has split his playing time between second and short in the minors, didn’t see any playing time at the position after being recalled in September.
Barmes finished the season with a .229 average with 16 doubles, a triple, eight home runs and 45 RBI in 144 games with the Bucs. Despite the slow start, Barmes finished the season off strong. The veteran batted .269 in his last 55 games, beginning with his two-hit game in Houston on 7/28 and went 16-for-47 in his final 17 games at PNC Park, where he hit .251 in 73 games overall in 2012.
Barmes enters the 2013 season in his final year of his two-year contract with the club. Unless the Pirates decide to upgrade the position in the offseason, Barmes will be the everyday shortstop. But perhaps look for some prospects (Mercer, Holt) to see some time at the position next year for glimpses of if either could handle the job in the near future.
Harrison broke camp with the Pirates out of spring training for the first time in his career and spent the entire season in Pittsburgh as the club’s super utility man. Harrison hit for a .233 clip with nine doubles, five triples, three homers and 16 RBI in 104 games with Pirates.
He made 18 starts at shortstop in 2012 after not playing the position since college at the University of Cincinnati. The Pirates sent Harrison to the Fall Instructional League to get reps at short last offseason and he saw a lot of playing time at the position during spring training.
Mercer appeared in 56 games at Triple-A Indianapolis to start the 2012 season before the Pirates promoted the infielder to the big leagues. In limited playing time, Mercer hit .210 with five doubles, a triple, homer and five RBI in 42 games with the Pirates.
Mercer batted .287 with Triple-A and was with the Pirates from July 6th through the end of season. He made 28 appearances (nine starts) at shortstop. Mercer will head into spring training battling likely for a bench role with the club. While the glove has been strong for the 25-year-old, how his bat plays at the Major League level will be key. Mercer led the minors in 2011 in home runs with 19 combined at Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis.
Navarro made the team out of spring training, but struggled out of the gates with Pittsburgh after a solid spring training in his first year with the organization. Navarro was acquired from Kansas City for minor league pitcher Brooks Pounders. The 24-year-old hit just .160 over 29 games this season.
After being sent to Triple-A in late May, Navarro made one more trip to Pittsburgh to make an impression but was optioned back to the minors. Navarro finished with a .279/.366/.491 line with Indianapolis over 66 games. Navarro made three appearances at shortstop in the Majors this season.
After making his Major League debut in June of last season and going on to appear in 48 games with Pittsburgh, d’Arnaud spent the majority of the 2012 season in Triple-A Indianapolis. D’Arnaud hit .252 (96-for-381) with 24 doubles, four triples, six homers and 38 RBI in 98 games with Indy. The infielder swiped 34 bases out of 39 attempts, which was ranked second in the International League.
D’Arnaud’s playing time after being promoted in September was limited. He went 0-for-6 with two runs scored in eight games with the Pirates and made just one appearance at shortstop.
by Tim Williams
Shortstop is the hardest position to fill in the majors, and for that reason is the hardest position to develop. Most players spend time at shortstop at some point in their career. That’s because shortstop is where teams usually play their top athletes in the amateur ranks. As players move up, they start playing on teams where they are no longer the top athlete on the team. That might happen for some players in high school. For some it might happen in college. For others it could happen in the various levels of the minors.
The Pirates don’t have a lot of strong depth at the shortstop position, although that’s not a rare position to be in. In the upper levels they’ve got guys who have an upside as an average starter at the position. Looking around the league, an average shortstop isn’t something that really stands out with a lot of value. Mercer and d’Arnaud have the best shot at being starters in the upper levels, with Mercer moving ahead of d’Arnaud this year. Harrison, Navarro, and Holt all struggle defensively, and don’t have the offense to make up for their poor defense at the position.
In the lower levels the Pirates have two shortstop prospects emerging. It’s rare to find a strong two-way shortstop with a good bat and good defense. The Pirates have both extremes with their emerging prospects. Gift Ngoepe, who spent the 2012 season in high-A, is the best defensive shortstop in the organization. Ngoepe is speedy with good hands, a plus arm, and good instincts on the field. However, he’s raw at the plate, which makes him a one-sided defensive wizard at this point. That could change, as Gift doesn’t have a lot of experience in pro ball. His main problem has been consistency, and that could improve with more experience.
Alen Hanson spent the 2012 season in low-A, after making an aggressive jump from the GCL in 2011. Hanson turned a lot of heads this year with his bat, putting up some amazing numbers in the South Atlantic League. He’s got the bat to provide a ton of value at the shortstop position, which isn’t known for being an offensive position. The knock on Hanson is his defense. There are some questions about whether he can stick at the shortstop position over the long-term. The questions surround his arm strength and some of his movements and instincts on the field.
There’s still time for each player to improve their weaknesses and become a two-way player. Ngoepe didn’t make his pro debut until 2009. Hanson didn’t debut until 2010. Both were raw before their pro debuts, and both have come a long way from low-key signings (low-key at least from a talent perspective with Gift) to legit prospects. The important thing to remember is that neither player has to become the ideal shortstop from a league-wide perspective. They just have to be the best option with the Pirates. The Pirates, like a lot of teams, don’t have a strong two-way option. So the chances of Hanson or Gift eventually becoming a major league starter with Pittsburgh are strong.
In the short-term, the Pirates will have to hope that someone like Mercer can step up and become a league average shortstop. Hanson’s bat could move him quickly through the minors, but even on an aggressive timeline, he’s probably not arriving until late 2014 at the earliest. On a more conservative timeline, he’s looking at mid-2015.