GLENDALE, Ariz. – Heading into my Arizona trip last week, I thought the Pirates having Kevin Kramer at shortstop was a typical experiment.
The Pirates are no strangers to moving players around. The top prospects who project as starters in the majors always stay put in one spot. The other guys will try out different positions, hoping to either add value as a utility player, or have options if they do end up playing well enough to start. This had the feel of getting Kramer more experience at different positions, to give him options if second base was filled.
After my Arizona trip, I came away thinking that the Pirates might actually have an interesting shortstop prospect in Kramer.
Now I don’t want to say that Kramer is a shortstop based on two games. I did get to see him make a lot of plays, and he looked smooth and natural at the position. I didn’t get to see him face a lot of challenges, and don’t want to make assumptions off of two good games. What I will say is that it’s worth continuing the experiment beyond the AFL.
From what I gathered while I was out there, the results from Kramer weren’t limited to the two games I saw, and were noticed by other members of the organization. Take Pirates Director of Minor League Operations Larry Broadway, for example:
“Our guys liked him in college at short,” Broadway said. “We drafted him and [Kevin] Newman together, so naturally put him at second, put Newman at short. But he’s been good. He’s made every play. Made all of the plays in instructs. Goes left and right, he comes in on the ball. He looks really comfortable, has a good internal clock. He has a good feel for the speed of the game over there. He’s done a nice job.”
Broadway said that Kramer has continued to get work in at shortstop, even though he hasn’t played in any games there since 2015. He noted that Kramer has done a good job adjusting to games, which isn’t a guarantee, not matter how much you practice at the position.
Keoni De Renne was Kramer’s hitting coach in Bradenton last year, and is his hitting coach in the AFL this year. He also knows plenty about the challenges at both second base and shortstop. De Renne was primarily a second baseman in 11 years combined between the minors and independent ball. However, he moved around a lot, and his second most common position was shortstop. I saw Kramer do well on slow rollers that he had to charge in the first game of my trip, and discussed those plays with De Renne, who broke down the challenges Kramer faced.
“He had three slow rollers that day that weren’t easy plays to make, but on three different slow rollers, especially with the timing of the runner,” De Renne said. “Understanding who the runner is in the box, how much time do you have? Can you set your feet up? Do you need to set your feet up, or can you throw on the run? He’s shown all three different ways on those ground balls that he can make those plays regardless. It’s not just a one-dimensional thing where he can only make one certain type of play.”
Kramer said that the shortstop position was going to be a challenge, since he hadn’t played there in a while. He worked during instructs with infield coordinator Gary Green. He also needed adjustments going from second base — where he says the biggest challenge is the double play turn — to shortstop, where you need to make different plays depending on how the ball is hit.
“You can’t be as creative at second base,” Kramer said. “It’s more straight forward. At shortstop, you can kind of twist it to your personality. You can twist it to your game, and be creative, and make plays that maybe someone else would do differently.”
I asked Kramer how he was able to get creative at shortstop, and twist the position to his personality. After seeing him doing so well on the charging plays, I wasn’t surprised with his answer.
“I love charging the ball,” Kramer said. “It’s something that, in college, that was a big thing for us, charging and throwing on the run. I love throwing on the run. It obviously doesn’t look as hard, and doesn’t come out that hot, but I love throwing on the run. Something right now for me, backhanding the ball has been a lot of fun, and it’s been challenging. Knowing what balls I need to get around, what balls I need to charge, what balls I need to set up on. It’s just different. There’s so many different factors that go into it. It’s been challenging, it’s been fun, and it’s been a whole different process going through that stuff.”
The thing that makes Kramer an interesting option at shortstop isn’t his glove, but his bat. Kramer has competition at the position with Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker. I don’t want to compare the defense of the three after seeing so little of Kramer. I would have Tucker’s defensive upside over Newman’s if I’m comparing just those two.
Offensively, I think Kramer has the most upside of the three. Newman projects to be a guy who can hit for average and get on base, with very little power outside of extra bases and gap power. Tucker looks like he could be good for a middle infielder in the power department, while also hitting for average and getting on base. He’s a little more of a risk than Newman on offense, but we still have him as the better overall prospect with offense and defense considered.
Kramer beats all three in offensive upside. He has the most power by far, and combines that with skills to hit for average and get on base. Newman might be around an average starter. Tucker might have a shot at going higher than that if everything clicks. But if Kramer can play the position without losing a lot of value — and that’s still a big “if” at this point — then you could be looking at an impact shortstop with his bat.
Over the last year, Kramer has seen his offense click into place. He struggled in Bradenton, in part due to the Florida State League atmosphere. But he needed some adjustments, some of which came with his swing, but others involving his approach.
“The one thing that Kramer is very good at is being able to control the strike zone,” De Renne said. “He knows what pitches and zone of the plate that he can hit. He sticks with his approach. And when you get good pitches to hit, you’re going to barrel balls and you’re going to be able to do some damage. His plate discipline for me right now, even if it’s been in a small sample size, from what I saw from 2016 to now, he’s a better hitter because he knows who he is.”
Broadway had a similar breakdown for what worked for Kramer this year.
“He was disciplined in the zone, and swinging at the right pitches,” Broadway said. “He’s squaring balls up a lot, and it looks like he continues to see the ball well and is really committed to what he wants to hit.”
Kramer’s offense makes him an interesting prospect at both middle infield positions. He’s capable of being a starter at second base, but if the shortstop experiment works, then he’s got a lot more value on the other side of the bag.
I will note that the Pirates aren’t looking at this as an “experiment.” When I used that word, Broadway said that wasn’t how he would define it.
“I think it’s an opportunity for him to play over there and see if it’s an option,” Broadway said. “And it looks like it’s an option, so good for him and good for us.”
So is Kramer the type of option who can start at shortstop, or is he the type of option who can play there in a pinch?
“We haven’t had enough looks at it yet,” Broadway said. “He’s shown to be able to make the routine play, which is what you’re looking for at shortstop.”
The challenge here is that Kramer will be going to Indianapolis next year, and will be paired with Kevin Newman, who still has the priority at short. Even if they split time up the middle, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for Kramer at short. Cole Tucker is behind those two in Altoona, so the Pirates can’t leave Kramer behind to learn the spot. The Pirates will have to figure something out if they want to continue giving Kramer opportunities at shortstop.
“I think it’s good for all of those guys to be able to push each other,” Broadway said. “All three of those guys have good relationships with each other. They challenge each other, push each other.”
I don’t know if Kramer can be a starting shortstop in the future. I’d have to see more of him, and there are the obvious challenges in getting him work at the position. I would go as far as saying he looks like he has a shot at being a starter, since the skills to play the position and make the routine play are there. At the least, that makes him a much more interesting prospect, and gives the Pirates a decision to make with how they will be handling their upper level middle infielders in 2018.