Past, Present, Future: Shortstop Went From Looking Like a Future Strength to Uncertain For the Pirates

This is part of a season recap feature that will run this month, looking at each position on the Pirates with a focus on the recent past (2018 season), the present (what the 2019 team looks like) and the future (years beyond 2019). Check out our previous articles:

Rotation

Bullpen

First Base

Third Base

The 2018 season saw the Pirates start to make a transition at the shortstop position. The Pirates entered the year with Jordy Mercer under team control for just one more year. They ended the season with Mercer mostly riding the bench, and Kevin Newman getting starts in the majors.

None of that would guarantee that Mercer is gone for good. But the Pirates made it pretty clear that he isn’t their top shortstop option in 2019 and beyond.

Mercer’s season was slightly below his last two years, when he had a 1.5 fWAR each season. He hit for a .251/.315/.381 line, and had a 1.0 WAR. Part of the drop was due to lower playing time, while another part is his continued decline on defense.

Mercer looked strong defensively through the 2015 season, but struggled the last few years. Those struggles continued this year, with a -0.6 UZR/150, -8 DRS, and -9 Plus/Minus.

The Pirates didn’t see better results from Newman at the end of the year. He hit for a .209/.247/.231 line, and while defensive numbers aren’t reliable in small sample sizes, his numbers were poor in all of the defensive metrics that Mercer struggled with.

The Pirates did take a flier on Adeiny Hechavarria in August, getting the strong defensive shortstop for a short time while Mercer was injured. They parted ways with him not long after, ending up turning to Newman for the priority playing time in September.

The Prospects

Newman’s struggles in his MLB debut are to be expected for any rookie. There should never be an expectation that a rookie would come up and seamlessly transition to the majors with no struggles. Newman can improve on his first taste of the majors, but he does illustrate the issue the Pirates face with the shortstop position in 2019.

Right now, the team has no one else other than Newman as an option. They do have second base options like Kevin Kramer, who could transition over, but that doesn’t solve the issue of relying on unknown production from a rookie. It would make sense for the team to bring in a veteran shortstop — perhaps bringing back Mercer as a backup — in order to ease Newman into the role.

Newman has more upside than he initially showed, although I’m not sure his upside would be higher than the upside Mercer has shown in his time with the Pirates. At best, I think Newman can replace the 1.5 WAR upside that Mercer was showing. At the least, I think Newman can be a good utility infielder if he doesn’t make it as a starter.

The Pirates have a few other shortstop prospects in the minors, although it was a poor year for the options behind Newman. Cole Tucker has the highest upside of the group, but struggled offensively in Altoona. He could move up to Indianapolis in 2019, and if he gets on track he could push Newman for the future starting role. However, he’s getting to the point where he needs to show production in the minors, rather than relying on upside.

Adrian Valerio is another prospect who struggled offensively, with his struggles happening in Bradenton. He showed good defense, but didn’t follow up his offensive success from 2017. That success going forward will be needed if he wants to be more than a defensive shortstop or a Quad-A option.

Oneil Cruz was the most interesting guy to play the shortstop position this year due to his powerful bat, but it’s extremely unlikely that the 6′ 6″ infielder sticks at the position without being a huge defensive liability.

The Pirates have their short-term hopes on Newman, with Tucker having more long-term upside, but needing to start translating that to the field.

The Future

The Pirates will have an interesting decision to make this offseason. The smart thing to do would be to bring in another shortstop, and someone who can be relied on for positive production, even if it’s only to the level that Jordy Mercer produced this past year.

They could go with Kevin Newman as a starter, but would need that veteran as a Plan B in the event that Newman doesn’t work out. They could also use the veteran to split time with Newman and ease him into the big leagues, until he’s ready to take over full-time.

The thing that is clear is that they can’t rely on Newman by himself just yet. The Pirates entered the 2018 season looking promising at shortstop due to their prospect depth. After initial MLB struggles from Newman, plus minor league struggles from Tucker and Valerio, the position ended on a down note.

There is still enough talent that the position is viewed as a strength for the Pirates in the future, but they will need to see the results rebound in 2019 to get that strength back on track.

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