Does Kevin Kramer Have a Future as a Starting Shortstop?

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.

  • It was an exciting article to read. Since I have no scouting background whatsoever I’m just hoping one of the three develops into a very good shortstop. The fact that they all get along and are pushing each other is a big plus.

  • They need to give him the bulk of playing time at SS. Newman’s offense is not good. He still never developed any power and both his BB rate and K rate are trending in the wrong direction. Kramer needs to be given the opportunity to stick there.

  • Michael Sankovich
    November 2, 2017 3:47 pm

    I hope at least one of theses 3 turns out to be an above average major league infield regular. That means better than Jordy Mercer.

  • Trade Newman.

  • Patrick Kelly
    November 2, 2017 1:40 pm

    This reminds me a lot of the Mercer, de Arnaud, Ford logjam a few years ago. Chase was the main guy (Newman), with the other 2 a step behind. It shook out with Ford washing out, Chase being unspectacular in his time with the Bucs, and Mercer grabbing the job with solid defense and a respectable bat. Let’s hope the situation with Newman, Kramer, and Tucker plays out better. If any of them can match Mercer’s defense, the hitting could be better across the board. That would be a net gain on the position going forward.

    • the neat thing is that Kramer is a righty-mashing lefty and Tucker is a switch hitter, while Mercer can pretty much only hit lefties.

  • Is Kramer hitting 400 in the AFL or is closer to 200? He had a good month or so with the bat last year before getting hurt and now he is not hitting. Why all the excitement? Lets see him hit first then you can find a home for the glove.

    • The excitement is because of the hitting skills he displays, even when they don’t always show up in the stats.

      • Any word on how the org is trying to remedy his platoon splits?

        Closing that gap alone would go a long way toward the stats catching up with the hitting ability.

        • I talked to him about adjustments last month. Nothing really to write about. Just that he started making some adjustments to pitchers, learning how the upper level guys threw to him, then got hurt. We’ll probably see next year how he does with those adjustments in the long-term.

  • Cole Tucker has a bigger frame, faster bat, and didn’t need the FSL excuse as a crutch on his way to outhitting Kramer in high-A as a 20 yo.

    Kramer has yet to pair contact and power together, nor has he solved his extreme platoon issues. For those reasons, seems awfully premature to go against the consensus and say the 24 yo has more offensive upside than the kid who’s outperformed him three years younger, and that’s taking nothing away from Kramer himself.

    • i’m with you on that. I’m a Cole Tucker fanboy (putting up the numbers he did in AA at his age is super impressive) and i’m also the guy that was comparing Pablo Reyes (man… i really feel like he needs more credit) favorably to Kevin Kramer.

      That said, i think you’ll agree that the Kramer SS experiment is worth doing.

      Him with the description you put forth as a 2b is just a “guy” but him playing a passable SS is suddenly an interesting guy.

      • Sure, passable at SS at least opens up a utility IF possibility, but I haven’t seen a single report from any outlet that believed he has the range for SS or the arm for the left side in a starter role. Not sure I see much value in forcing the situation with other capable SS’s around him.

    • I see Kramer’s offense as a safer bet than Tucker. I would agree that you could argue Tucker’s upside is higher. But as for power, Kramer wins.

      • Current power or power upside? Maybe I’m reading you wrong.

        I’ll certainly respect going with a gut feeling, but it just seems out of character to side with the smaller, older, less projectable player on a tool like power.

        Looking forward to seeing it stick!

  • I think the main, burning question is – how early does Kramer get set prior to the pitch?

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    November 2, 2017 12:21 pm

    Given the presence of Tucker and Kramer’s potential to hit with some pop, i would be more inclined to try him at 3B – where the Pirates are awfully thin throughout the system. Bell, Newman, Tucker, and Kramer would be a potentially good infield, although none are likely ever going to be Gold Glover candidates…

    • It is weird that we could roll out two sets of infielders at AAA:
      1B: Espinal and Weiss
      2B: Kramer and Bostick
      SS: Newman and Ngoepe (with Tucker closing in)
      3B: Wood and Mathisen
      Even though they are not all high prospects, there are interesting things about each:
      – Espinal and Wood offer power and good fielding
      – Ngoepe offers great fielding and speed (I still like him as the last player on the bench)
      – Weiss, Kramer, and Newman all seem to be professional hitters (with varying degrees of power)
      – Bostick flexibility
      – Mathisen athleticism

      • michael schalke
        November 2, 2017 1:22 pm

        Unfortunately very few of them projects to be an above average major leaguer.

        • Even average would be an improvement in some cases. For example, Mercer (who seems like a great person and a class act), is consistently below average. He is coming off his best year and was still only bottom third in MLB.

          In fact, the Pirates were below average at C, SS, LF, RF, and 1B last year. Their position players as a whole were 7 wins below average, per bbref.

      • Ngope is gone I thought

    • if there’s a passable SS hidden in Kramer, then they need to keep trying to extract that. That’s just too valuable to pass up on.

      let at least one of the guys reach the Majors before worrying about a crowded position by trading one or working on 3b in the minors.

    • Leave him at SS. Make Tucker take SS job. If a guy can play SS the transition to 3B should be relatively easy.