The first week of Spring Training games is in the books! I’m not going to make much of the results at this point, but I do want to highlight some early trends that stood out for the Pirates.
Oneil Cruz in Center Field
Perhaps the biggest development early in Spring Training has been Oneil Cruz playing two games in center field. Cruz has played more games at shortstop, and that was the expectation for his position this year, according to what Ben Cherington told me in December.
“I think to go into 2021, absolutely it will be shortstop,” Cherington said of Cruz’s position. “I think when he’s ready to help our major league team win, then maybe shortstop. He’s capable of doing that. If there’s a way to help our team at another spot, then we can consider that at that time.”
The shortstop position in Pittsburgh is wide open. Cole Tucker is expected to get his playing time at the position this year, but hasn’t seen much playing time so far after a left hand contusion. Erik Gonzalez and Kevin Newman are off to good starts this spring, but they are both guys the Pirates would eventually look to upgrade from.
Cruz would have to compete in the long-term with prospects like Liover Peguero, Nick Gonzales (who has only played second base so far) and Ji-Hwan Bae. It will be interesting to see how the Pirates actually handle Cruz and his positioning this year. Long-term, I don’t project him sticking at shortstop, and feel that outfield is more reasonable. He’s got the athletic ability, speed, and range to play center field. His bat would make him at impact player at that position, if he can stick defensively. I think this is a more reasonable “if he can stick” than shortstop.
Gregory Polanco’s Hot Start
You don’t want to make much of any Spring Training stats, especially when they come with a dozen or fewer at-bats. It’s fun to see early progress. It’s fun to see Ke’Bryan Hayes with an OPS of 1.295 and hits in his first four games, following up his strong September last year. It’s encouraging seeing guys like Newman and Gonzalez off to hot starts, when the Pirates need them to step up and fill starting roles.
There’s a completely different aspect to Gregory Polanco’s hot start. He has a 1.545 OPS in 11 at-bats. Again, that’s a very small sample size, but it is big enough to open up a discussion: How good would Gregory Polanco have to be this year to make his option years look enticing?
Obviously that’s a question more for another organization, Polanco is under team control through the 2023 season. He has a $12.5 M option in 2022, with a $3 million buyout, and a $13.5 M option in 2023, with a $1 million buyout. The Pirates have money to spend in those years, but spending on Polanco probably wouldn’t be worthwhile. At best, the Pirates’ window would only be opening during that time, and they’d get more value from a Polanco trade than from keeping Polanco.
This assumes Polanco can regain enough value to be a trade candidate this summer. That’s a big assumption, as Polanco has been highly inconsistent, and injury prone. Even when he’s hitting well during the regular season, we’ve seen it all turn 180 in a hurry.
Then again, all it might take is a prolonged hot stretch at the right time for the Pirates to be able to get value out of Polanco. The option year in 2022 only adds $9.5 million in additional guaranteed money, plus the $1 million buyout for 2023. If Polanco returns to his 2.5 WAR levels or better, I’d have to think he’d be worth that to a big market team. That would require him getting back to what was going well in 2018 and building upon that, which is opposite of his path from the last two seasons.
I don’t grade prospects based on what they do in big league camp. A lot of these younger guys are going to be overmatched in their first look at big league pitchers. You can really see this in the strikeout numbers.
Mason Martin and Cal Mitchell are two examples of guys you’d expect to be overmatched at this point. Both have three strikeouts in five at-bats, though Martin has a single in his time. You can give each of these guys a pass, as they’ll probably be starting off in Altoona this year, and are unlikely to even sniff the big leagues until 2022 at the earliest.
One concerning trend for an overmatched player is Kevin Kramer. Unlike Martin and Mitchell, Kramer is expected to help the big league team. He’s off to a rough start, going 0-for-9 with six strikeouts. Kramer has shown power potential from the middle infield, and good contact skills, along with the defense to be a starter at second.
Kramer has struggled in his brief MLB time, hitting for a combined .387 OPS in 90 plate appearances, with a 41% strikeout rate. His offense in the minors also declined in 2019. It doesn’t look like he has turned things around so far. He’s in his age 27 season, which could make this one of his final chances with the Pirates.