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When the Pirates find a new GM, he or she will need to determine how to address some of the impending position battles involving their top prospects.
The 2019 season was quite a journey, and the kids were on display. Young talent like Bryan Reynolds, and Kevin Newman grabbed the headline mantle directly from Josh Bell as he cooled off toward the end of June and geared up for his first All Star game appearance.
I often pictured a proud Clint Hurdle pushing the woes of his pitching staff and growing injured list out of his mind, while smiling and mumbling the famous words of his movie counterpart in Major League, “There’s a couple of potential All Stars in there.”
2020 promises to provide more of the youth injection, so let’s take a moment and see if we can broach the subject of where they fit. Of course, injury is sometimes the mother of opportunity as young Mr. Reynolds discovered last season, but for the sake of this look, we’ll assume the healthiest roster in the league.
Ke’Bryan Hayes – 3B
The Runddown: Hayes is a defensive wiz at the hot corner, as my colleague noted on multiple occasions. A late 1 round pick (32 overall) in 2015, Hayes has shown positive strides with the bat but hasn’t shown the power many hoped would develop. He was hampered by injury last season for Indianapolis, but still hit .266 with 10 HR in only 432 at bats. A welcome sight for the Pirates top prospect.
Players to Leapfrog: Colin Moran, Jose Osuna
My Thoughts: The Pirates were one of the very worst teams in baseball defensively last season. This on a team that featured a Gold glove finalist 2B (Frazier), a former Gold Glove winner (Marte), and a steady LF (Reynolds). If you watched more than a dozen games, you would have seen that Moran’s defense at third was a weakness.
So, the question for Hayes is, can his defense and offensive potential outweigh the emergence of Moran who became a consistent contributor on offense in the heart of the order? Osuna has at least proven he is a very solid bench option and defensively superior to Moran as a 3B and 1B. His position flexibility will make him hard to replace. I believe we will see Hayes starting the season with AAA. Hayes is too good to last long down there and will find a way to the MLB club in 2020. The defense is just too impressive and much needed.
Cole Tucker – Middle Infield
The Runddown: Early in the season Cole Tucker was called into duty as the Pirates were bitten by injury at the Short Stop position. He was electric from the start, he smiled and flashed the speed and energy we saw during spring training. Defensively, Tucker took charge of SS and provided stability, but his bat went cold after a very nice start, ultimately leading to his demotion as the roster found their way out of the medical tent. His call up in September provided little opportunity for playing time as Adam Frazier and Kevin Newman were arguably the best hitters in the lineup down the stretch – both competed for tops in the league in batting average.
Players to Leapfrog: Newman, Frasier, Eric Gonzalez, Kevin Kramer
My Thoughts: Middle infield is a position of strength for the Bucs. I see no way Newman and Frazier don’t go into 2020 as penned in starters. However, every team needs a solid middle infielder to provide insurance on the bench and that could very well be Tucker’s spot. He has some hurdles, and not his ex-coach, namely Eric Gonzalez and Kevin Kramer. Gonzalez showed some of what the Pirates hoped he would be as the season wound down. He is entering his first season of arbitration. That’s a whole lot of control to cede for any club, let alone the traditionally frugal Pirates. Kevin Kramer worked in the outfield last season but even that could be a crowded spot with Gregory Polanco expected to return. Tucker will have to earn it in Spring Training, but it may be a numbers game.
Will Craig – 1B
The Runddown: Will has steadily moved up the ranks in the minors. Last season he belted 23 home runs for the Indians, while providing Gold Glove-quality defense. His power has emerged, and the pop is real.
Players to Leapfrog: Josh Bell, Jose Osuna
My Thoughts: Craig will have some real challenges making the club out of camp. His defense and bat look ready for the show but, being stuck behind Josh Bell who rarely takes a night off unless forcibly removed, he won’t find many at-bats off the bench. At 24 the Pirates really need to find another position for him or run the risk of wasting this intriguing prospect.
In previous seasons you could set your watch by what Neal Huntington would and wouldn’t do, but those days are over. We no longer look at these prospects as potential replacements for salary dumped stars, but as potential pieces in a rebuild. When the Pirates find their new GM and manager, they won’t be coming in to the completely bare cupboard. Perhaps some of these position battles will enable the club to make some moves to improve the pitching staff. Or maybe we’ll have a couple younger Pirates make a run at Rookie of the Year.