Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Pirates make predictable moves but focus on future
The Pittsburgh Pirates made some predictable moves Monday by naming shortstop Erik Gonzalez and third baseman Jung Ho Kang starters over Kevin Newman and Colin Moran.
That the decisions came down to defense is the obvious reaction, as Gonzalez and Kang provide more experience and better range on the left side of the infield.
It also can be viewed that the Pirates also chose veterans over youth, as they invested a first-round draft pick in Newman and Moran was a major part of the Gerrit Cole trade with the Houston Astros last year.
It might be just the opposite.
1. Minds made up: These decisions were determined not so much in spring training but last fall, when Newman struggled in September, and the Pirates challenged Moran to become more mobile.
That should have served notice to both players that there was no guarantee they would be starters this season, as much as the Pirates would have loved a smooth succession from Jordy Mercer to Newman at shortstop and for Moran to be a mainstay at third.
The five-player trade for Gonzalez signaled the Pirates wanted an upgrade at shortstop, especially defensively, where the 6-foot-3, 205-pounder is more dynamic than Newman.
When the Pirates declined Kang’s $5.5-million option but got him to re-sign with an incentive-laden deal, Moran should have seen the writing on the wall that they preferred a power bat.
2. Start at short: The Pirates have preached all Gonzalez needed was a chance to be an everyday player, which he wasn’t going to get behind Francisco Lindor in Cleveland.
In 162 career games over three seasons — the equivalent of one major league season — Gonzalez has slashed .263/.292/.389 with 16 doubles, five home runs and 27 RBIs.
So he is a downgrade from Mercer at the plate but has better range in the field. The question is if he will be as good on routine plays. Either way, Gonzalez will bat eighth, just like Mercer.
After slashing .209/.247/.241 in 31 games last season — more a sign of fatigue than a lack of ability at the plate — Newman needed to prove he was a superior hitter to Gonzalez.
Batting .276 with one home run and five RBIs didn’t cut it.
3. Stop at third: Moran was betrayed not by his bat but his glove.
Moran was slightly better at the plate, batting .214 to Kang’s .179, but the difference is that all of Kang’s hits were home runs, including two in the opener.
It shouldn’t be overlooked that Kang has 13 strikeouts and only one walk. The Pirates, however, prefer his glove and love his power potential after he hit 36 homers in 2015 and ‘16.
Despite spending the offseason working to become more agile and mobile, Moran struggled from the start at third. Where Kang looked comfortable, Moran appeared to be pressing and committed four errors this spring after making only 10 all of last season.
4. New positions: The Pirates didn’t waste any time making Moran and Newman adapt to potential backup roles.
The starting lineup for the Pirates’ game against the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday featured Moran at first base and Newman at second, with possible super-utility man Pablo Reyes at shortstop and Patrick Kivlehan at third.
Where Newman has played second base and shortstop in the minors, this might be Moran’s first foray at first. When I asked him about the possibility of playing first, like David Freese did the past three seasons, Moran expressed no concerns with the transition.
Tell that to Pedro Alvarez.
If Newman and Moran show they can handle playing multiple positions, it might help keep them on the major-league roster.
5. Future stars: All this might be nothing more than a stopgap solution for the Pirates, anyway.
Based on their strong spring performances, it appears top prospects Cole Tucker and Ke’Bryan Hayes could be the Pirates’ shortstop and third baseman of the future.
And that might be the not-so-distant future.
Coming off a fantastic showing in the Arizona Fall League, Tucker batted .389 (7 for 18) with a double, a triple, two homers and three RBIs this spring and brings speed to the basepaths.
Hayes, their No. 2 prospect, not only had a breakthrough spring by batting .346 (9 for 26) with seven extra-base hits (four doubles, a triple and two homers) and nine RBIs but showed a major league-ready glove that was the best of the bunch.
Tucker didn’t make it past the second round of cuts, and Hayes was reassigned to minor-league camp Monday, but it’s possible they are only a season in Triple-A Indianapolis away from becoming starters for the Pirates.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .