Over the years, I’ve watched as fans react to early offseason moves with panic and trepidation. The Pirates will pick a catcher up off waivers in November and then everyone jumps to assume that the starting catcher is on the verge of getting traded and this nondescript bum is the new starter. Minor league rosters and the end of the bench need filled out, too, you know.
So when the Pirates traded the thoroughly fungible outfielder Jordan Luplow and the interesting, but ultimately unnecessary, Max Moroff to the Indians on November 15th for shortstop Erik Gonzalez and two low-level minor league pitchers, I thought it was a lowkey placeholder move. With the departure of Jordy Mercer, the Pirates were clearly in the mix for a new starter at shortstop. Kevin Newman has never done anything for me as a prospect — his complete absence of power only portends getting the bat knocked out of his hands in the Majors and his defense is not great enough to overcome his offensive deficiencies.
There were options out there for the taking at the outset of the free agency/trade season period. I’ve pretty consistently stumped for Jose Iglesias on a 2-year deal. He could have been the starter in 2019 and then converted to utility infielder once Cole Tucker is hopefully ready to take the reins in 2020. To see him sign for a minor league deal that will only be worth $2.5M and $1M in potential bonuses (and with in-division rival, the Reds, to boot) was stunning. A member of the Pirates’ front office told me that they did their diligence on Iglesias and intimated that he preferred to sign with them over the Reds. But then Neal Huntington will come out and say they don’t like Iglesias’s hands.
But because of the inexcusable $75M self-imposed cap on Opening Day payroll for 2019, the Pirates can’t have nice things. And Jose Iglesias is not Morton’s Steakhouse (Andrelton Simmons) nice; he’s Outback Steakhouse on a Groupon nice. Perfectly cromulent, even though you know there are better cuts of meat out there, even if you are too lazy to find them or don’t have the money to buy them.
So here we are with 27-year-old Erik Gonzalez as the starting shortstop for your 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates. Or, in other terms, a “young Freddy Galvis“, as Neal Huntingdon described him at Piratefest in January. Ah yes, compared to the wizened, craggy 29-year-old Freddy Galvis. I mean…technically…he’s right. He is indeed younger. But that’s a weird flex to trumpet a guy only two years younger and hype him up compared to Galvis, an established Major League option at shortstop.
I understand that Gonzalez has been stuck behind Francisco Lindor at short, Jose Ramirez at third, and Jason Kipnis at second. But I’m finding it hard to believe that the Pirates have magically uncovered some diamond in the rough that was languishing behind these guys in the infield. Especially with Kipnis and his recent career downslide; Gonzalez should have been in consideration at second if he’s so good, especially for a team as fiscally prudent as the Indians.
Erik Gonzalez, albeit over the course of three seasons, has appeared in 162 games, a ‘full season’. In those scant 275 plate appearances, he’s accrued a triple slash of .263/.292/.389, for a career wRC+ of 78 (22% below a league-average hitter). And the crazy part is that I think that’s better than what Newman would do this year! Last week, Jason Rollison at Bucs Dugout endeavored to find the upside in Gonzalez. His launch angle was far below league-average, so there’s hope that Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz can coax some changes out of him, as he did have good exit velocity on his swings. The problem for me is that Gonzalez is ostensibly here for his defense and that really hasn’t been eye-popping. In his ‘full season’ of career games, he’s only been +3 Defensive Runs Saved at 2B and he’s a Zero at SS.
For a team that is, theoretically, a contender for a Wild Card this year, starting the year with Gonzalez/Newman as the shortstop combo is disappointing. Don’t just take my word for it. Jay Jaffe of Fangraphs ranked all 30 teams by their projected WAR at shortstop. The Pirates came in tied with Baltimore (!) for the worst projected shortstops. Here’s the graphical form of it for your viewing pleasure:
Both Jaffe at Fangraphs and Zach Kram at The Ringer discuss how we’re in a boom period for offensively-minded shortstops. Most of them are good to excellent with the glove, too. And here the Pirates sit tied for last in baseball with shortstops that even their most fervent, fever-eyed supporters won’t say are going to do great things with the bat. I’m fairly sure that neither are going to be considered for the Gold Glove shortlist at the end of the year, either. So they have two guys that can’t hit enough or can’t field enough in an era where 23 of the 30 MLB teams are projected to get at least 2.0 WAR out of the position this year.
But hey, at least I’ll probably get a free lunch out of it from Alan Saunders.
I said close.
I ?ll take over 1.5 for lunch, provided the Pirates are actually smart enough to platoon them.
? Alan Saunders (@ASaunders_PGH) February 22, 2019
I’m envisioning the shortstop position to be such a black hole that the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory is going to have to be called in to observe the gravitational waves from two black holes smashing together. So what will the next options be ? If I’m presuming that a change will be made on or around Memorial Day, that probably too early for Cole Tucker to have proven he’s mastered AAA and ready to join Pittsburgh, Super Two ramifications notwithstanding. I’m pretty sure the Diamondbacks will be terrible this year, so perhaps Nick Ahmed could be available in an early season trade to stabilize the position. I know Alex Stumpf has been stumpfing for Adam Frazier to play the position, defense be damned.
My fear is that the Pirates will be in the mix for a Wild Card, but on the periphery of it, for most of the season. If they fall short of the playoffs by just a couple games (optimistic, in my opinion), they may rue the decision to cheap out on the most vital infield position.