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Pirates 2021 Season Preview: Infield

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Here’s our final position group preview. It’s a crew with some potential.

Tampa Bay Rays v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Pittsburgh Pirates Infield

This is perhaps the most exciting of the position groups, because not only does it hold a large chunk of the offensive production for the Buccos, it also contains their most talented player and the one we all most want to keep an eye on. With the Season Opener just one day away, here’s the infield the Bucs will get started with.

The likely starters

Colin Moran - 1B

Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Moran provides some of the batting pop for the Pirates this season as their likely clean-up hitter, which says a lot about the dearth of power in Pittsburgh’s lineup when a guy who’s never hit more than 13 homers in a season is batting fourth. His home run rate was up last year, however, as he cranked 10 in just 178 at bats, good enough for a career-best five-percent home run percentage or an AB-to-HR ratio of 17.8. Certainly not spectacular, but definitely a little more respectable. He also hit two dingers this spring, so hopefully he’ll supply a little bit of juice that Pittsburgh so desperately needs.

He’ll also be full-time at first base, a good place for a bad fielder. That should help mitigate the poor fielding that’s plagued him in the past, though he does have the capability of sliding back over to third, something the Pirates did for a handful of games last season. I’ll be crossing my fingers that doesn’t happen though.

Adam Frazier - 2B

Pittsburgh Pirates v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Frazier not only will be playing primarily at second base (though he retains outfield capabilities if required), he’ll also be batting leadoff for the Pirates to start the season. Though he’s just a .273 career batter and is coming off an ugly year at the plate in which he swung just .230, he had a really strong Grapefruit League, hitting .488 with 10 of his 21 spring hits going for multiple bases. If he can carry at least some of that over to the regular season, that will help the Buccos manufacture some badly needed scoring punch.

He’s a pretty good fielder at second (much better there than in the outfield), as he committed just a single error in the infield in last year’s abbreviated season, but he also had a .989 fielding percentage in the infield the year before, so it’s fair to say he’ll likely be solid there again this year.

Kevin Newman - SS

Baltimore Orioles v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Before the spring, some thought Erik Gonzalez had a shot at the Opening Day duties at short, but Newman locked it down by virtue of his record-setting spring in which he hit .606, or the best average for the team in the preseason since 1974. He also didn’t strike out a single time in 39 at-bats in the Grapefruit League. That’s certainly not going to continue for a guy who finished at .224 at the plate last year. He swatted a healthy .308 the season before in 498 at bats, however. If he can use his hot start to approach that level again, I think we’ll all be happy.

He didn’t have a great year fielding at short last season, but back in 2019, he had a .973 percentage at the position in 104 games played, so he’s certainly capable. Struggle, however, and I’m sure the team won’t hesitate to go to Gonzalez.

Ke’Bryan Hayes - 3B

Pittsburgh Pirates v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Hayes is not only the most talented player in this position group, he’s the biggest talent on the whole team and many figure him for possible superstar potential. Many also have him pegged for one of the top Rookie of the Year candidates. Not only that, he’ll be expected to lead the squad from a hitting perspective and the team is going to look to him to be one of the main engines to turn this offense away from the doldrums and towards respectability.

It seems like that could be a lot to put on the shoulders of a 24-year-old rookie with just 24 Major League games under his belt, but to this point, Hayes seems down for the challenge. After swatting .376 in limited time last year, he hit .431 this spring. On top of that, he’s expected to compete for a Gold Glove this year in the field.

Pirates hurler Steven Brault recently said this about Hayes:

“He’s the best everyday ballplayer I’ve ever played with, in general. I played with Cutch for a little bit. Obviously, he was close. Josh Bell had a crazy 2019 first half... But nobody compares to what Ke’Bryan does.”

High praise and high expectations, but Hayes seems built for this. There’s plenty of time to worry about the future (Hayes declined the team’s extension offer a week ago and the two sides are said to be far apart), but for now, just enjoy the show.

The rest...

Erik Gonzalez

Detroit Tigers v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Expected to compete as a starter at short, Gonzalez starts the season as a reserve but with the versatility to fill in at multiple positions. You might see him on any given game day at second, short, or at third, and he’s even moonlighted a handful of times at first base and the outfield. A career .250 hitter who batted just .227 last year, Gonzalez nevertheless had a strong spring at the plate, hitting .326 with two homers and several clutch RBIs. He’s likely to see plenty of time on the field this year, despite not starting against the Chicago Cubs on Thursday.

You can trust him in the field, though shortstop is his best position, and if Kevin Newman doesn’t carry over his strong spring, 29-year-old veteran Gonzalez will be waiting in the wings.

Phillip Evans

Pittsburgh Pirates v Atlanta Braves Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

We covered Evans already in our outfield piece, so I’m not going to get into too much here, but he’s a true utility guy and could see time at any of the infield slots in a pinch. As Robert mentioned in his write-up, Evans had a very strong spring, finishing with a .361 average. You’ll see him everywhere.

Don’t forget about...

Oneil Cruz, Rodolfo Castro, and Cole Tucker are the other infielders on the 40-man roster and will all start off in the minors as some of the team’s top long-term prospects and will be given time to develop, while Wilmer Difo battled hard this spring as well and will start the season in Triple-A Indianapolis but is a candidate for call-up if needed.

Keep an eye on Cruz in particular for the long term. The hulking 6’7” slugger is considered one of the best power prospects in baseball. For a team lacking specifically in that department, that particular skill is significant.