The Pittsburgh Pirates look to be going from hiding behind a collective rock known as the bottom of the MLB standings to an arrow pointing to a potential escape back to the spotlight over the next few seasons.
Pittsburgh’s infield looks to be heading in a similar direction, at least late in the season.
Backtracking to the beginning, Colin Moran, Adam Frazier, Kevin Newman, and Ke’Bryan Hayes started on Opening Day in a 5-3 Buccos victory in Chicago facing the Cubs. Frazier and Hayes each drove in two runs to secure the victory.
Despite being traded mid-season, Adam Frazier played an integral part in the Pirates 2021 infield before and after the deal. The 29-year-old Mississippi State product was a force at the top of the National League batting race, slashing .324/.388/.448 with 28 doubles, 4 home runs, and 32 RBI in 386 at-bats spanning 98 games.
Frazier failed to replicate his success with the underwhelming San Diego Padres, but created an opening in the starting lineup for the likes of Wilmer Difo, Hoy Park, Cole Tucker, and others.
Hayes was the most impactful member of the 2021 infield who completed the season in Pittsburgh.
The 24-year-old rookie battled a left wrist injury early in the season which hampered his ability to consistently swing the bat with ease, finishing the year batting .257 and an underperforming .689 OPS with 6 home runs and 38 RBI.
Hayes put on a show defensively flashing the leather at the hot corner on a regular basis, but will need to improve offensively to become the All-Star-caliber third baseman the Pirates believe he can and will be.
Moran also dealt with a left wrist injury at the end of July and dealt with bumps and bruises throughout the Pirates' last-place finish in the NL Central. The Redbeard, 29, still finished second on the team in homers (10) and third in RBI (50) playing all but one of his games in the field at first base.
The last remaining piece acquired in the Gerrit Cole deal, Moran has been a solid contributor in the middle of the order for Pittsburgh and could draw interest from contenders over the offseason.
Newman was the most dependable defensive shortstop in the Major Leagues this season and over the past 19 years, leading baseball in fielding percentage and starting the season 76 games without committing an error.
The 2015 first-round pick has been a far cry from consistent offensively, however, failing to replicate a .308 average in 2019 with back-to-back seasons of mid .220 hitting. Newman recorded a .574 OPS, one of the lowest registered numbers in years.
The 28-year-old’s issue has become the failure to consistently hit to stay in the lineup, but makes for a unique defensive replacement where if he can hit enough, could develop into a dependable Clint Barmes type defense-first shortstop.
In review of all the players who appeared in the infield for the 2021 Pittsburgh Pirates, you may have forgotten some of the names from months past.
Remember Will Craig? Todd Frazier? John Nogowski?
They join Phillip Evans, Erik Gonzalez, Rodolfo Castro, Ildemaro Vargas, Park, Difo, Tucker, Michael Chavis, and two days of Oneil Cruz to round out the Pirates infield participants.
The former three all had brief appearances in the Black and Gold and not necessary in a positive light, Craig for one of the most head-scratching defensive plays of the past five seasons, Frazier making waves with a member of the media at the time of his release, and Nogowski becoming a folk hero for two weeks before being DFA and sent to AAA Indianapolis due to a lack of offensive production.
Evans and Gonzalez never carved out enough offense to stick as consistent roster contributors, and a combination of AAA at-bats and injuries forced their time in Pittsburgh to a likely close, with Gonzalez electing free agency late Wednesday night.
Vargas’ brief cup of coffee was not as impactful as Castro, who fluctuated between Pittsburgh and AA Altoona before an eventual late-year AAA promotion. The 22-year-old’s legit raw power resulted in five home runs in 86 at-bats despite hitting below the Mendoza Line in 31 games and was a nice surprise to witness, but will require an increased average to stick.
Fans wanted to dance with Difo and for good reason at times, providing an occasional spark for a 61-101 team with more questions than answers. Difo hit .269 with only 4 homers and 24 RBI, but showed up in critical spots to make fans take notice of the 29-year-old utility man, appearing at five different positions.
Park had a bumpy road after being acquired in the Clay Holmes deal with minor leaguer Diego Castillo and will have a chance to earn a utility role in 2022. The 25-year-old shortstop has potential and showed flashes of what he could be for Derek Shelton’s staff.
Tucker and Chavis flashed signs of starter capable infielders with slick defense and clutch hitting, a previous detriment to Tucker’s approach at the plate.
Both former first-rounders two picks apart from each other in the 2014 draft, Tucker may have found something to smoothen out his swing to create more contact and similarly for Chavis with a fresh start in Pittsburgh, reuniting with former Boston colleague Ben Cherington. Chavis produced in a limited sample size and has loads of potential, looking to duplicate his rookie season success in Boston (18 HR, 58 RBI) to second base for the Bucs before the arrival of Nick Gonzales and others.
Finally, Cruz provided the City of Pittsburgh the potential for what could be next season and beyond with ridiculous raw power and the ability to glide on the base paths for a 6’7” shortstop. Mashing a home run in the Pirates’ final inning of 2021, Cruz’s promotion provides a jumpstart to a stalling car just nearing the finish line, flashing a glimmer of hope for a fan base starting to see glimpses of potential.
The Pirates infield this season became a revolving door at times, especially on the right side, due to player transactions, injuries, lack of productivity, and providing the opportunity to young players to prove themselves.
Overall, the group receives a C+/B- grade, dramatically improving defensively from years past but failing to contain the team’s most productive and valuable position player in center fielder Bryan Reynolds.
The Bucs still have time on their hands before Cruz and the likes of Gonzales, Liover Peguero, and others are around for good, with the 2021 group an up-and-down product of the Pirates’ fourth-worst record in baseball.