The Pirates' Supposed Inability To Develop A Shortstop

There's been some ongoing discussion about the Pirates inability develop an above average homegrown shortstop, or to acquire one via trade/free agency. This is a point Dejan Kovacevic has hit numerous times, during his tenure at the PG and now in his current employment at the Trib. The criticism has been directed at the current front office but then in some cases has been extended to previous administrations. Generally, I feel like including the efforts of a previous ownership, front office, or scouting department in such an evaluation is irrelevant - it serves the narrative of the story, because it extends the years of 'ineptitude,' so you can say these guys aren't just 'bad,' they're 'really bad.' But it doesn't say anything about the acumen of current GM, scouting, etc.

My reaction up reading these articles has been, in a sense, a series of questions I've considered:

1) Is it indeed true that the Pirates have been unable to develop an above average or even average MLB shortstop over the past quarter century? The answer to that question is an obvious yes. The shortstops who have put up the Top Four Fangraphs WAR for the Pirates during that period were all acquired via trades (Jay Bell, Jack Wilson, Ronny Cedeno, and Abraham Nunez).

2) While the Pirates weren't able to draft or sign a SS over those years how did the shortstop play of those they acquired compare to the rest of the league? The Pirates' two best SS over the last twenty-five years in terms of Fangraphs WAR were Bell and Wilson, who totaled 25.1 and 14.8 WAR, respectively, with the Pirates. Also during those years Cedeno put up 2.9 WAR and Nunez 0.6.

Looking at Fangraphs WAR, Bell's best years for the Pirates were 1991-1994, in which he put up the following WAR: 4.5, 4.4, 6.6, and 3.6. His total WAR doing those years, 19.1, was second only to Cal Ripken, Jr.

Wilson's peak years were roughly 2004-2007. His Fangraphs WAR during those years were 4.7, 2.4, 0.9, 2.7. His total WAR of 10.7 ties him with Khalil Greene for 13th during that period.

During Bell's best years with the Pirates, he was one of the best shortstops in the game, according to the WAR stat. Wilson was, all told, about average. Ronny Cedeno was well below average -- his WAR of 2.9 ranks him at 31 out of 34 shortstops. (Nunez was obviously well below average also.)

So one shortstop who was above average, one who was about average, and two were below average. I couldn't find an easy way to compare the total WAR of those four players to the other teams in the league over the same period. If anyone knows of one I'd be curious to hear how they stack up. It strikes me, though, that the production the Pirates have gotten at shortstop over those years is probably all told about average, but certainly I could be wrong. That's obviously largely because of Bell, who hasn't played for the Pirates since 1996.

3) What other options are out there? More relevant to the current discussion is an evaluation of the shortstops the Pirates have signed, drafted, and traded for since 2008, when Neal Huntington became GM. They inherited a Jack Wilson who was trending downward and traded him in 2009 for Ronny Cedeno who, while below average, managed at least to stay on the field, as opposed to Wilson, who's been beset with injuries since. Cedeno was five years younger and had still had the potential for upside, so you'd rather have him than Wilson, even if you'd prefer to have neither.

They also signed Chris Gomez who put up -0.2 WAR in one season with the Pirates, and Ramon Vasquez who also totalled -0.2 WAR during his time in Pittsburgh. There was Bobby Crosby, who performed similarly to those two, putting up -0.5 WAR in 2010 (all but 14 of those plate appearances were with the Pirates).

That those guys were bad certainly isn't news. The Pirates also showed interested in trading for JJ Hardy last winter, a move which I know a lot of folks advocated here.

Short of not trading for Hardy, the reality is that there weren't a ton of great options after the handful of elite shortstops, so acquiring a MLB SS isn't easy. There aren't many who are above average.

Kevin Goldstein and Jason Parks were discussing this on the Up And In podcast a few months back. The gist of their conversation was that the SS play of the 90's and early 2000's has perhaps resulted in expectations for what kind of player a team show have at the position that don't jive with the current reality.

4) How have the Pirates fared with respect to shortstops in the draft and international signings since 2008? Via the draft, they have Chase D'Arnaud, Jordy Mercer, and Brock Holt in the system. Opinions vary on their career outcomes, but I think the consensus I perceive is somewhere between average to slightly below average starter to utility player.

Internationally the Pirates signed Jodaneli Carvajal, Gift Ngoepe, and Jonathan Barrios in 2008, Alen Hanson in 2009, and Dilson Herrera in 2010.

The Pirates had a chance to draft Manny Machado and Francisco Lindor in 2010 and 2011. In both cases it's hard to fault them for going with the pitcher.

Other top SS prospects who were drafted during those years include Nick Franklin (drafted 27th in 2009), Billy Hamilton (drafted 57th, after Victor Black and Brooks Pounders), Javier Baez (taken 11th in the 2011 draft), and Andrelton Simmons (70th in 2010).

To draft Franklin they would've had to take him No. 4 overall in 2009. They could have had Hamilton rather than the two aforementioned pitchers, and that certainly that looks like a better pick in hindsight, but despite his speed there's still question as whether he can hit in the big leagues.

Other top SS prospects came to their teams via international signings: Jurickson Profar (signed in 2009), Hak-Ju Lee (signed in 2008), Xander Bogaerts (signed in 2009), and Jean Segura (signed in 2007). Hak-Ju Lee has the potential to be an average to above average MLB SS depending on your evaluation of him. Profar is, of course, one of the top prospects in baseball and has an All-Star ceiling, at the very least. Bogaerts looks likely to move to third, from what I've read.

Of the top shortstop prospects, I think it's fair to say maybe half look to be potential above average players and three (Machado, Lindor, and Profar) the potential to be stars. But either way it illustrates the number of potentially excellent players who can stick at SS is pretty limited.

5) To what degree has the Pirates' previous inability to develop an above average shortstop been a direct result of not putting adequate money and resources into international scouting, particularly Latin America, under previous management?

If you take a look at the top 14 shortstops in 2011 according to Fangraphs WAR, nine were signed out of Latin America. Of the top 20 shortstops since 2008, according to that metric, half are Latin American signings.

As noted above, we've seen some international shortstop signings since 2008 when the Pirates finally started taking Latin America seriously. But it will take the Pirates a while to make up the ground they have to cover to catch up with teams who've made Latin America a priority for years. Alen Hanson and Dilson Herrera strike me as the the most promising, from what I've read. Both are currently so far away it's hard to gauge their likelihood of being above average players.

It's true that the Pirates haven't had success developing a SS internally in eons, and also true that the current front office hasn't had success acquiring an above average ML SS thus far (we'll see what happens with Barmes). But I think both of those points require some context. An above average SS is a fairly rare commodity, so it's not usually easy to acquire one. The Pirates had some opportunities to draft one but I don't fault them for instead taking Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. Finally, the majority of above-average shortstops come from Latin America, and until Huntington and Connelly took over the Pirates virtually ignored Latin America.

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