The Pirates placed Jordy Mercer on the 10-day disabled list today, and called up shortstop prospect Kevin Newman. In our mid-season top 50 eBook (available now with reports on all 50 players), we had Newman rated as the number eight prospect in the system, and he has since moved up to number seven with Shane Baz out of the system.
Newman also looks like the starter of the future, and the guy who could take over for Mercer in 2019, as Mercer is a free agent at the end of this year. This move gives the Pirates a chance to see what they’ve got with Newman, and gives Newman a chance to get ready for the majors full-time.
To get a better idea of what to expect when a top prospect arrives, we always give a full report in our “The Book on…” series. We cover these prospects from the day they enter the system through the time they reach the majors, and all of our information is collected in this feature. With that said, here is The Book on Kevin Newman.
Where Did Newman Come From?
The Pirates drafted Newman in the first round of the 2015 draft, taking him with the 19th overall pick. He’s had a pretty standard progression through the minors, going to short-season A-ball after the draft, then High-A and Double-A in his first full season in 2016.
Newman’s career stalled a bit in 2017, struggling some offensively in his return to Double-A before going up to Indianapolis for the first time. He returned to Indianapolis this year, but needed Jordy Mercer to either get injured or traded to create an opportunity in the majors.
Newman was advertised out of the draft as a guy who could hit for average, get on base, provide some speed, avoid strikeouts, but all with limited power in the form of gap power. He’s lived up to most of that, with the lack of power being a concern about his upside, and the ability to get on base not fully offsetting those concerns.
His current line in Triple-A displays the concerns and the potential upside. He’s got a .302/.350/.407 line, which wouldn’t be bad as a starter if that fully translated over to the majors.
The average is fueled by a lot of balls in play due to a low strikeout rate (10.5%) and a high BABIP (.333). Both are things that can be repeated in the majors due to Newman’s strong recognition in the strike zone, and his speed that allows him to pick up extra hits.
That speed hasn’t translated to value on the bases in the past, but he does have 28 steals in 39 attempts this year, so he’s starting to add a little bit of value beyond just the bat.
Newman has struggled to get on base with walks. His walk rate this year is 6.5%, which is up from 5.9% last year in Double-A, and 3.9% in his first run through Triple-A. He was at 9-10% in 2016 between Bradenton and Altoona, which is a good level to be at for a guy who lacks power.
The lack of power is the big concern here. Newman has a .105 ISO this year, which is actually his best mark and the only time he’s been above .100 in the upper levels. There is some recent hope to be optimistic. He had an .086 ISO before the All-Star break, and has posted a .154 ISO since the break. He’s had a .123 ISO in July and a .239 ISO so far in August. His line so far since the break has been .290/.338/.444, which has mostly been fueled by two monster weeks in August.
Newman isn’t a home run hitter. He can hit a few, but his power will come from hitting line drives to the gaps, and taking the extra base with his speed. The good thing about his recent power increase is that it has mostly come from an increase in extra base hits, and not home runs. That’s good, as a spike in home runs wouldn’t be sustainable and would probably take away from other parts of his game, while a spike in extra base hits would indicate that he’s playing into his best hitting approach.
The key offensive takeaway is that Newman can be one of two types of hitters. The first hitter is a singles hitter who doesn’t get on base a lot via walks, but can hit for a high average with a few gap shots for extra bases, ending up with a .700+ OPS and some speed on the bases. That would profile as a bottom of the order hitter, and this profile is based on what he’s done for most of the last two years.
The other hitter is a more well-rounded guy who can still hit for average with a lower walk rate, but boost that OPS with more power from extra base hits. If the walks could return to their 2016 form, while maintaining the other skills, then you’ve got a guy who can hit for an .800+ OPS. If the walks don’t return, you still could have a .750+ OPS. This is the type of hitter Newman can be if all of his tools are clicking, and has mostly been what we’ve seen over the last six weeks, with the disclaimer that he’s still not drawing walks.
Newman doesn’t project to have an impact bat, but could be a good role player in the lineup, at best providing a decent leadoff hitter, and at worst providing a guy who won’t be bad at the bottom of the order.
When Newman was drafted, there were questions about whether he could stick at shortstop as a starter, or become a second baseman or utility infielder due to his defensive limitations. Scouts were split on the opinion of him at first, but there seems to be more of a consensus in recent years of him being able to stick at shortstop.
The reason for the change in opinions comes from Newman’s improvements in his game. He has done a lot of the same work that Jordy Mercer did to improve his defense in the minors, working on route efficiency, a quicker first step, and maximizing range in either direction. Newman is in no way the best defensive shortstop in the system, but he’s capable of coming up and putting up results similar to what Mercer saw in his first few years in the majors.
The defense is good enough to allow him to stick at shortstop as a starter. He’s also played second base this year, but shortstop is a more valuable position for him with his lack of power and defensive capabilities at the spot.
Newman looks like the shortstop of the future in Pittsburgh, at least for the time being. He looks like a guy who can come up and take over for Jordy Mercer, with the upside of a below-average starter, or an average starter at best.
Defensively, Newman might be better than Mercer right now, since Mercer has seen a decline in his defense the last few years, and rates near the bottom of the league defensively this year in a lot of advanced metrics.
Offensively, Newman is a much different hitter than Mercer, although they can reach the same outcome. Mercer has put up an OPS in the .700-.733 range in each of the last three years, mostly through a lower average, a good OBP, and good power from the middle infield. Newman is capable of the same end result, although he would likely get there with a high average, decent walk rate, and lower power numbers.
Newman would be capable of more if the walk rate returned to 2016 numbers, or if the power increase he’s seen the last few weeks can translate to the majors. I think the walk rate is a long-shot, as it has yet to really return this year. The power could possibly transfer over in the form of gap power, but that might not happen right away, and is more of a long-term hope. It would probably take both things to click to get Newman over an .800 OPS in the majors in the future. All of these projections assume that his average will carry over, which should be a safer assumption, as that is fueled by his speed and strike zone recognition, along with good hands and contact skills — all of which would translate over to the majors.
The Pirates have a better shortstop prospect below Newman in Cole Tucker, although Tucker is a bit more raw at the moment, and a few years younger. He has some stuff to work on gaining consistency with his hitting tools, which should give Newman at least the entire 2019 season to show what he can do as a starter, and perhaps part of 2020 as well. If Tucker does work out, then Newman would either be a very good utility infielder for the Pirates, or a trade option for a team in need of a shortstop. If Tucker doesn’t pan out, then Newman should remain the starter in Pittsburgh, with below-average to average upside at the position.
The Pirates need to use this time to give Newman a shot in the majors and see what they’ve got. More important than that, they need to get him adjusted to the majors. Mercer is a free agent at the end of the year, and it would make a lot of sense to move on to Newman as the starter for the 2019 season.
That would be an easier decision if they are able to see what Newman can do in the majors, and if Newman already has six weeks of MLB experience under his belt before being the starter for a full season in 2019.
I wouldn’t expect Newman’s recent Triple-A success to fully translate over to the majors. The average could translate, for reasons I’ve stated above, but the gap power probably would need to develop in the big leagues over the long-term. Still, with the ability to hit for average, provide speed on the bases, and the defense required to start at shortstop, Newman looks like a guy who could make an easier transition to the majors.