The Pirates called up Kevin Kramer yesterday, completing their second round of September callups. This comes at a time when they have been focusing on playing their younger players, rather than veterans like Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison who might not be back next year.
Kramer should get some playing time down the stretch, with a chance to work his way into a permanent job in the majors. As with every big prospect who arrives, we give a look at what you can expect from the player, and what his upside could be. With that said, let’s take a look at The Book on Kevin Kramer.
Where Did Kevin Kramer Come From?
The Pirates drafted Kramer in the second round of the 2015 draft, taking him out of UCLA. He was a slightly under-slot pick, getting $850,000 when the slot amount was $994,800. Kramer’s selection had the entertainment value of coming shortly after the Pirates drafted Kevin Newman, with the Newman-Kramer combo leading to inevitable Seinfeld puns that will likely last the rest of their careers as long as they are together. (Fun fact: That 2015 draft also included Jordan George, adding a third Seinfeld name to the mix.)
Kramer was drafted as a shortstop, but was immediately switched to second base due to being on the same teams as Newman. He was exclusively a second baseman in 2016 and 2017, but moved back to short during the Arizona Fall League in 2017, and added third base in 2018 with Indianapolis.
The Pirates have given Kramer an aggressive push through the minors, despite numbers that wouldn’t warrant such a push. He had a .730 OPS in Bradenton, but made the jump to Altoona in 2017. His 2017 season was cut short, but he still was moved up to Indianapolis in 2018, even after a .612 OPS in the AFL.
The decision on Kramer was largely made on his tools and skills, which didn’t always translate over to the stats. They started translating over this year, and he began to emerge as a top replacement option at second base for Josh Harrison. Now that he has arrived in the majors, and with the Pirates out of it, he should get an opportunity to show what he can do.
Kramer was drafted during a time when the Pirates were going heavy on hitters who could hit for average, draw walks, limit strikeouts, play a premium defensive position, but who lacked home run power. The Pirates were taking a lot of players with this profile from 2014-16, with gap power being the extent of the power production, and hopes that the players could develop more home run power in the future and be a well-rounded hitter.
Kramer is one of the few who has taken that step. He hit 15 home runs and 35 doubles this year in Indianapolis, and had a .181 ISO, which is solid from a middle infielder. Kramer has had power potential since he was drafted, but some adjustments the last two years to add more leverage to his swing have led to better stats, starting with a .203 ISO last year in Altoona.
The plate patience skills from Kramer project to carry over to the majors. He has strong contact skills, batting .343 from the start of June to the end of the year, along with a .202 ISO in that span. If the power can carry over, he could provide a nice bat in the middle of the infield.
The Pirates had Kramer playing shortstop as a trial in the AFL last year, which wasn’t a huge experiment, since he played there in college. His defense at the position was surprising, with good range and smooth hands, showing that he could at least be an option as a backup at the position.
The Pirates continued the experiment into 2018, getting him time at shortstop in Indianapolis, along with trying him out at third base. I wouldn’t say that Kramer is better defensively than Newman or Cole Tucker — if you’re going to have him in the lineup with one of those guys, it’s better to have him at second base — but he’s not a bad option to back up shortstop or third base to get some additional playing time.
He provides strong defense at second base, possibly adding the same value that Josh Harrison has provided in years leading up to the 2018 season. Because the Pirates have an opening at second, and have Newman and then Tucker as options for shortstop, it’s likely that Kramer will get most of his time at second base. But until he’s the starter anywhere, he should get time at both middle infield positions, along with third base.
Josh Harrison has provided the Pirates with a league average at best second baseman, and in most years a guy who was slightly below average, ranking in the 15-20 range. I don’t see Kramer as an impact guy at second base, but he can be an average or above-average guy, depending on how well the bat carries over.
I think Kramer can match Harrison’s defensive value at second base. The real tell will be whether he can carry his full offense, including his power, over to the big leagues. If he can do that with any kind of consistency, he could be a 10-15 ranked second baseman. Keep in mind that we’re in an era where the top second basemen are hitting 20+ homers a year, which is why I wouldn’t project anything higher than average to above-average for Kramer. That still should be an upgrade over what the Pirates have received from Harrison in previous years, or at the least, would match Harrison’s performance from his 2017 season.
The Pirates look like they will be giving their younger guys a chance, especially in the middle infield over Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison. They wouldn’t have added Kramer to the roster just to sit him on the bench. Expect him to get some playing time during the month of September, getting the chance to show what he can do.
If things work out well, the Pirates can easily make a decision to decline Josh Harrison’s option this offseason and use Kramer as a starter on Opening Day next year, possibly splitting time initially with Adam Frazier while he adjusts to the majors. That could allow him to work his way into a regular starting role, where he currently projects to be the best option for the Pirates for the long-term.