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What to do with the middle infield?

Cincinnati Reds v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Last offseason, when the Pirates were considering their middle infield options, club officials talked up the potential of young shortstop Erik Gonzalez, who was obtained from Cleveland along with two minor league pitchers in exchange for Max Moroff and Jordan Luplow. And they were banking on Adam Frazier duplicating his second-half performance from the previous season and solidifying his hold on second base.

Gonzalez, you might recall, was coming off a 2018 season that saw him hit .265 in 136 at-bats for the Indians, and some felt the 6-foot-3, 205-pound right-handed hitter would finally get a chance to shine after being blocked by Francisco Lindor in Cleveland. All he would need to do was beat out Kevin Newman, the Pirates’ No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft, who made a less than stellar first impression when called up to the big team at the end of the 2018 season. In 91 at-bats that season, Newman batted just .209 with a paltry .478 OPS, and looked shaky in the field. Fans wondered if the club had made yet another mistake with a No. 1 draft pick.

Frazier, meanwhile, had gotten off to a slow start in 2018 and wound up getting optioned to Indianapolis, where he spent much of June and July before being recalled late that month. Then, from July 25 through the end of the season, Frazier looked like the hitter the Pirates thought they had, as he batted .306, slugged .533 and put together an .890 OPS with seven home runs and 27 RBIs in 180 at-bats.

That performance earned Frazier a starting spot at second base when the 2019 season started. At shortstop, Gonzalez had beaten out Newman in spring training and took the field as the club’s starting shortstop when the season opened in Cincinnati on March 28. He pretty much retained that spot, despite hitting just .216 with a .592 OPS and two RBIs in 51 at-bats, until a collision with center fielder Starling Marte on April 19 resulted in a broken left collarbone, an injury that kept him off the major league roster until Aug. 2.

Gonzalez’s injury left the Pirates in scramble mode at shortstop. Newman, who figured to take over, was himself injured, having lacerated his right middle finger while working with a pitching machine. This after committing three errors in one inning in a game against the Cubs on April 8. The club then recalled Cole Tucker, the Bucs’ No. 1 pick the year before Newman, and after a dramatic debut that ended with his game-winning home run against the Giants on April 20, he was unable to maintain his spot before eventually retreating to Indianapolis on June 8.

So, that left Newman to play short – and based on what he had done up to that point, it’s unlikely anyone saw what was coming. Looking anything like the unsteady player who took the field in late 2018, Newman held his own in 2019, hitting .308 with 12 home runs, 64 RBIs and 16 stolen bases in 493 at-bats. He showed solid defense, for the most part, but one has to wonder whether we’ve seen his ceiling both offensively and defensively.

Which leads us to the middle infield options for 2020. Did Newman earn the right to open at short, or will Stubby Clapp – or whoever is guiding the Bucs in 2020 – open the position to all comers? If so, where does that leave Tucker – the one-time heir apparent who hasn’t exactly torn it up during his climb up the minor league ladder? At 23, he still has a little time on his side – Newman is 26 – so it’s conceivable he could return to Indianapolis for a second full season at that level. And what about Frazier? I’ve never been a huge fan, and his .254 batting average and .672 OPS through the end of June had me calling for his head. But once again he turned it on during the second half, hitting .303 with an .836 OPS from July 1 through the end of the season. Still, can the Pirates afford to have him limp through the first halves of every season?

One option would be to move one of the three – Newman, Tucker or Frazier – but it’s hard to believe any of them would fetch much in return, unless it was as part of a package that included other players. My choice would be to deal Frazier, move Newman to second and let Tucker see what he can do at the big league level. If he fails, the club can always revert back to Newman at short, and fill in at second with Kevin Kramer or Gonzalez. Or play Gonzalez at short and leave Newman at second. If Tucker truly is the club’s shortstop of the future, why not start that future now?