Last week’s signing of former Washington Nationals utility player Wilmer Difo to a minor league deal got just about as much attention as it merited at the time, given the other news of the day. That would be the announced signing of prized Dominican outfield prospect Shalin Polanco – and 14 other international signings – as well as the agreements with all arbitration-eligible players on the roster.
But Difo’s signing could be a key piece in the restructuring of the Bucs’ short-term infield picture in that his added depth could allow the club to feel more comfortable dealing second baseman Adam Frazier. Although Difo – who turns 29 in early April — was inked to a minor league deal and is by no means guaranteed a spot on the major league roster, he was given an invitation to spring training, and he has produced at the big league level in the past. And perhaps that production allows Ben Cherington, Derek Shelton and Co. to feel as though things would be covered up the middle should someone offer the club a decent return for Frazier, the two-time Gold Glove finalist.
Granted, Difo failed to deliver last year in a big way, batting just .071 in 18 plate appearances before being exiled to the Nationals’ satellite camp for the remainder of the season. But, as colleague Nathan Hursh noted, Difo did put together a .252/.315/.313 slash line in 2019 and in the previous year, when he collected his career-high plate appearances (456), he did show some pop with seven home runs and seven triples.
I would have no desire to see the Pirates trot the switch-hitting Difo out to shortstop or second base on a regular basis in 2021, but he does seem capable of filling a backup role at both spots. And that could give the Pirates enough cover to deal Frazier, move Kevin Newman to second and let Erik Gonzalez and Cole Tucker battle it out for the starting shortstop spot.
I know, if given the choice, many Pirates fans would opt for Gonzalez. He showed some offensive spark early last season, maintaining a .288/.315/.781 slash line two-thirds of the way through the shortened 60-game schedule, but during the final third, his line slipped to .111/.138/.159 in 18 games. I don’t exactly dislike Gonzalez – he’s a fine defender – but at age 29 (he turns 30 on Aug. 31) we likely know what we have there.
I can’t say the same for Tucker. I realize the greater fan base is down on Tucker’s offensive potential, and they have every right to be, given his production – or lack thereof – since reaching the big leagues for the first time in 2019. Simply put, he has shown precious little pop as a Pirate and an inability to get on base, thus negating his best offensive weapon – his speed.
But I haven’t given up on Tucker, largely because he has yet to reach his physical maturity – and he did seem to have decent on-base numbers during his climb through the minor leagues. But getting back to Tucker’s physical stature, the Arizona native is listed at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds but at 24 – he turns 25 July 3 – he looks to have more room to fill out, particularly in the upper body area. Perhaps adding strength would prevent him from looking completely overmatched at the plate against guys throwing in the upper-90s, which seems to be all we see nowadays.
I have no way of knowing what the Pirates brain trust thinks of Tucker, but given their usage of him last year, when he didn’t play a single inning at shortstop and instead was sent out to play the outfield for the first time in his life, it might be safe to assume he’s not held in very high regard. After all, Tucker is not Cherington’s “guy” — he inherited Tucker, whom previous GM Neal Huntington selected with the Pirates’ No. 1 pick – and 24th overall – in the 2014 draft.
The bottom line, at least for me, is that I’d like to see the Pirates move on from Frazier – not because he’s a bad player (although I’m not a big fan), but because he’s one of the few tradeable assets they have and might bring back a decent prospect. And then, I’d like to see the Pirates install Tucker at short from Day 1 and give him 40 games or so to see what he can do. Who cares if the club tanks; it’ll only lead to a better draft position in 2022. If the club did give Tucker a real shot at short, and if he to put up the same numbers he has in the past, then I’d live with any decision they made in terms of replacing him with Gonzalez and using him in a super-utility role, a la Chris Taylor of the Dodgers. But maybe, if given the opportunity to play every day, Tucker can establish himself as at least a competent major league shortstop, one who can hold the fort until Liover Peguero or Ji-Hwan Bae is ready to take over the position at 115 Federal Street.