Pirates 2021 Seasons: Shortstop is a Game of Attrition

It’s amazing to me that the parallels between Jordy Mercer and Kevin Newman.

Both were drafted as shortstops by the Pittsburgh Pirates due to their offensive abilities, with draft-day questions about whether their defense would keep them at the position.

Both arrived in Pittsburgh as starting shortstops whose defense was largely ahead of the offense.

During Mercer’s time, that combination made him a below-average shortstop in most seasons.

The 2021 season saw Kevin Newman ranked 26th out of 26 qualified shortstops.

Granted, Newman’s .574 OPS is lower than the career .701 OPS from Mercer. That said, Newman’s defense was better than anything Mercer put up in his career. In fact, out of those 26 qualifying shortstops, Newman ranked first in defense.

Shortstop is a game of attrition. Almost every athlete who plays baseball has played shortstop at some point in his career. Most players get moved off the position at some point during or after high school. Some players go on to play the position in college, only to find a new position in pro ball. And even if you make it all the way to the majors, you can still move off the position if you’re not good enough, relative to the league.

Shortstop is the hardest position to fill. Because of that, teams will invest a lot of money, a lot of high draft picks, and a lot of time in their best athletes to fill the position with an impact player. This has resulted in a golden era of the position, where a 3.0 WAR wouldn’t be enough to crack the top half of those 26 qualified players in 2021.

In Newman’s best season in the majors, he’s posted a 2.4 WAR. That is better than any season that Mercer produced, but the increase in high quality shortstops still leaves Newman in the below-average territory with his best production.

That 2.4 WAR came in 2019, thanks to much better offense from Newman. He had a .308/.353/.446 line that season. In 2021, he hit .226/.265/.309. The defense was much better in 2021, but that doesn’t make up for the lack of offense.

The Pirates are starting to look at other options beyond Newman.

Cole Tucker got more playing time at shortstop in the second half of 2021. His offense was closer to a .700 OPS, but his defense provided no value to sustain that offensive level as a starter.

Oneil Cruz got a surprise call to the majors at the end of the season, and is the best chance the Pirates have for an impact player at the position.

I wouldn’t give up on Newman. He’s shown the ability to excel on both sides of the ball in the majors. How likely is it that he can combine his top defense in 2021 with his offensive output from 2019? That would warrant sticking with him as a starter, and could propel him to an average starting level in today’s elevated shortstop game.

I’d expect Cruz to begin the 2022 season in the minors, but he could be up for good by the end of the season. That would leave Newman, and Tucker, with one more shot at the position as a starter. Either player would need to improve a long way to get to an average starting level in the majors. Both players would be good off the bench as utility players once Cruz arrives, though they would probably be competing with each other for that role.

As for Cruz, and the other future shortstop options in the farm system, you can read more in my article today over at Pirates Prospects.