At the start of Ben Cherington’s run as the Pirates’ General Manager, the starting middle infielders were Adam Frazier at second base and Kevin Newman at shortstop.
Both were Neal Huntington drafted and developed prospects who emerged as league-average starters at their position for at least one season each. You don’t really know what you’re getting with either player long-term, and there’s no guarantee you get that league-average production from either player in a given season, as the 2020 season showed us.
Cherington’s first big moves landed a shortstop prospect in Liover Peguero via trade, and a first round shortstop who profiles better at second base in Nick Gonzales. By mid-2023, and possibly earlier if Peguero moves quickly, that pair projects to be the middle infield duo for the Pirates. It’s also a middle infield combo that, when combined with Ke’Bryan Hayes at third base, could give Ben Cherington the foundation needed to get the Pirates back to the playoffs.
Today we’re focusing on the future of the second base position. While this article will detail that 2020 first rounder Nick Gonzales is projected to be the starter of the future, I’ll also run through the other options in the system, outlining how important the development of Gonzales is for the Pirates getting better than average production from the position.
Currently in the Majors
The Pirates currently have Adam Frazier as their starting second baseman, and they could keep things that way through the 2022 season. I discussed yesterday whether it would make sense to trade him this offseason, or keep him around and maintain his production at the position in the event that the team is competitive in 2022.
If the Pirates do move on from Frazier, then Kevin Newman becomes the best option to take over second base out of the guys currently in the majors. Erik Gonzalez and Cole Tucker are both better defensive options at shortstop. Newman would fit better at second, and that would hopefully lead to a return of his offense from the 2019 season. He’s got a good chance to give you the same value that Frazier gave, which is an average starter at second.
Gonzalez and Tucker could also be in the mix, but one of them would need to lock down the shortstop position in order for the other to compete with Newman at second. There’s also the chance that Newman gets the shortstop position, but I don’t think that would be the best defensive alignment, considering he’s the weakest of the three at the position.
Runoff From the Shortstop Prospects
The long-term of the second base position is largely going to be dictated by the shortstop position. The best prospects in the system right now are currently shortstop prospects. Sure, there’s a chance that Kevin Kramer finally figures out how to adjust his bat to the majors and surprises everyone as the second baseman of the future by the end of the 2021 season. The more likely long-term answer will come from the shortstop prospects.
I’ve got Liover Peguero projected as the long-term shortstop, with a chance to arrive in 2022. The other candidates are Oneil Cruz, who I project to end up in the outfield, and Nick Gonzales and Ji-Hwan Bae, who both profile better at second base.
Gonzales is the leader here, and the guy I’d project as the second baseman of the future. He’s a solid contact hitter who the scouts love. The highest outlook is that he could compete for batting titles, while adding 15-20 homers a year. The floor here is a league average second baseman, with a chance to be a top ten or top five guy in his best years.
If Gonzales doesn’t work out, or if he is needed to remain at shortstop, the Pirates have another shortstop they can convert in Ji-Hwan Bae. He’s got elite speed and contact skills, profiling as a speedy leadoff hitter with plenty of range. The thing that holds him back from shortstop is below-average arm strength. He could be a lighter version of Gonzales at second, with outstanding contact skills leading the way, but a massive drop in power, and the hope that an increase in stolen bases can help make up the lost value.
I didn’t mention Rodolfo Castro much in the shortstop prospect article the other day, as I don’t think he’ll end up at the position. For that to happen, the Pirates would have to run through Newman, Gonzalez, Tucker, Cruz, Gonzales, Peguero, and Bae. Even if a lot of those guys struggle or move off the position, I think Castro is more likely to end up being a guy moved off, rather than being a guy who is saved as a Plan C or Plan D.
Castro will be in his age 21/22 season next year, likely making the jump to Double-A at some point during the year. He’s shown good power from the middle infield positions, although his contact skills have been a concern, with low averages and strikeouts a quarter of the time the last two seasons. The previous guys on this list excelled because of contact skills, with power or speed being the added bonus. Castro has the best power of the trio, but his power is unlikely to make up the ground that Gonzales’ contact skills cover to separate the two.
Gonzales is the clear standout of this trio, and the second baseman of the future in Pittsburgh. If he doesn’t pan out as expected, then the Pirates could turn to either Bae or Castro, who could both give them league-average starting production through different means. Bae would do it as a speedy contact hitter. Castro would do it with above-average power from the position.
Photo of Nick Gonzales courtesy Pittsburgh Pirates