How Neal Huntington and Ben Cherington Rebuilt the Shortstop Depth in the Pirates’ System

How do you grade the strength of a position on a rebuilding team?

Do you look in the majors or minors? Do you look at immediate impact or future production? Do you want to win in 2022 or 2023?

The Pirates are a rebuilding team. Or a building team. I’m not really sure what adjective we’re using this offseason to describe the future goal for a team that just finished with the worst record in the majors, with a farm system that ranks in the bottom half of the league. The point is, there’s only one way for them to go from here.

Typically a team in that type of situation will see an overhaul in the front office, which we’ve been witnessing for the last year. That new General Manager tends to come in and try to find impact guys he can build around at harder positions to fill. Catcher, center field, third base, and more often than the others, shortstop.

The shortstop position is the strength of the Pittsburgh Pirates right now. I say that to give you an idea of how I define positional strength for a rebuilding team.

They’re not strong in the majors right now, as I detailed yesterday. They have three guys with potential to each be average starters at the position, and maybe have a shot at being above-average. There’s also a good chance that none of them end up as more than bench players, with the shortstop production in 2021 being replacement level.

But in the farm system? That’s where you’re seeing a nice collection of talented players for a rebuilding team.

You can almost see the rebuilding efforts of two General Managers when you break down the shortstop position.

Neal Huntington traded Tony Watson at the deadline in 2017, getting young prospect Oneil Cruz in return. Cruz was playing in Low-A at the time, in his first year playing in the states, and wasn’t regarded as a top prospect. His bat broke out, and Huntington decided to try him at shortstop, despite the 6′ 7″ size. He’s now a top 100 prospect in the game, and could end up one of the top prospects in the game before he’s ready to arrive in the majors, as long as things break right with the bat.

That following offseason, Huntington traded All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen, getting Kyle Crick and Bryan Reynolds in return. There was a third component to that deal. Huntington received $500,000 in international bonus pool space, which the team used to sign shortstop Ji-Hwan Bae for $1.25 million out of South Korea.

By Spring Training of 2018, Cruz and Bae were both at shortstop at Pirate City.

Ben Cherington took over for Neal Huntington almost a year ago. One of his first moves was trading All-Star center fielder Starling Marte, getting two lower level prospects in return. One of them was shortstop Liover Peguero, who is a toolsy guy that projects to stick at the position, with enough value in the bat to be an above-average starter or better.

Several months after that trade, Cherington used his first draft pick with the Pirates to take New Mexico State shortstop Nick Gonzales with the seventh overall pick in the 2020 draft.

At some point during Spring Training of 2021, Peguero and Gonzales will be at shortstop at Pirate City.

Joining Cruz and Bae.

Two plans each from two General Managers on how to rebuild the shortstop position.

So which guy will win out in the end?

Oneil Cruz

Cruz is the most dynamic prospect the Pirates have. He’s the most athletic with the most raw power, and he can seemingly play anywhere on the field. At least, that’s what you’d believe if you believe he can stick at shortstop. His 6′ 7″ size makes that difficult, but he can surprisingly handle the position well. I don’t think Cruz projects better than the other guys on this list defensively. The biggest appeal seems to be having a guy with his potential bat at the shortstop position, which should have you dreaming of potential MVP production. That would require Cruz providing positive value at shortstop, which isn’t out of the question, but shouldn’t be treated as some type of likely possibility.

I think the outfield is a more likely destination for Cruz (don’t tell Wilbur), where he can put more focus on developing the bat. Cruz has the offensive upside to easily handle a corner outfield spot, but also has plenty of speed and range and could be an interesting candidate to play center field. That might just be another variation of the experiment that has him playing shortstop right now. I think center field would be easier for him, and it’s easier to envision him sticking in center long-term, versus sticking at short. I’ve got him as the future right fielder in the system, but could see a scenario where he’s an option at pretty much any position other than catcher.

Cruz was involved in an accident this offseason that left three people dead. He’s out now on bail, and playing in the Dominican Republic. There were concerns that alcohol was involved in the accident. There was no breathalyzer test conducted at the accident, and Dominican laws are different in that area, which means the alcohol reports will probably go nowhere. I’d expect to see Cruz playing in the US next year, with a shot to reach the majors by the end of 2022, or earlier if he moves to the outfield and the bat takes off in the upper levels of the minors.

Most Likely Future Position: Outfield

Nick Gonzales

Gonzales projects as a great hitter and a better defender at second base than shortstop. Considering the depth the Pirates have at the shortstop position, it would be a surprise to see them keeping Gonzales there. They’d be better off banking on Cruz or Peguero to emerge as the future starter at the position, with Gonzales moving to second to focus on his bat and speed his path to the majors. In the event that Cruz and/or Peguero aren’t working out, it shouldn’t be difficult to move Gonzales back to the shortstop position to see what he can do.

I could see Gonzales arriving at some point in 2022, ready to help out in the middle infield. I think that help will likely be at second base.

Most Likely Future Position: Second Base

Liover Peguero

Peguero is the key to the shortstop position in my book. He’s a dynamic player who could amount to the best defensive option in the system, along with a bat that can provide value. He’s projected with plus hitting abilities, average power that could improve as he grows and fills out, and above-average speed. The Pirates have seen a decade of shortstops who have been league average at best — guys who can play the position well, but who are stuck at the bottom of the lineup — and Peguero could break that trend.

We are talking about a guy who has yet to play full season ball, which is where the risk comes in. That doesn’t make him much different from Gonzales, who has yet to play any level of pro ball. I project Peguero as more likely of the two to stick at shortstop.

Most Likely Future Position: Shortstop

Ji-Hwan Bae

With so much talent from the first three guys, it’s hard to not look at Bae in a sense of what he’s missing. His range and speed is good enough to cover a lot of ground at short, but he has a below-average arm, which detracts from his defensive value. He doesn’t hit for power, but makes good contact with a line drive approach and uses his speed on the bases. He profiles as a leadoff hitting shortstop who can steal bases and give you positive value on defense, albeit value you could upgrade over.

Bae is almost like the shortstops of old in Pittsburgh. If he reaches his full potential, you might see an above-average player. If the defense slips, he moves to a leadoff hitting second baseman. If the offense slips, you’re looking at a speedy bottom of the order hitter who can still give you positive defense. I think both scenarios lead to an average starter at best, all while clinging to hope that he could be more. There’s more hope in the tools of the previous three guys. That’s not to say that Bae won’t be the guy who wins out. It just means he’s less likely right now. The domestic abuse case where he was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend in South Korea also raises questions about his makeup.

I think Bae ends up on the bench in Pittsburgh, or as a trade chip. The only way he starts at second or short is if the Pirates struggle to develop the previous guys, and the guys in the majors. If that’s the case, then we’ll be discussing some serious problems that go beyond the shortstop position.

Most Likely Future Position: Second Base

Other Prospects

The Pirates have other prospects in the system who can play shortstop, mostly residing at the lower levels. I’m not getting into those players for this article, as they are either better suited to discuss in the second base article coming up, or they’re just depth in the event that all four of the guys above don’t work out (in addition to the three guys in the majors). In short, the Pirates would have to see seven players completely bust to have Rodolfo Castro as a shortstop option in the majors in the future.