Ben Cherington has been the Pirates’ general manager for two years now. He has done more than his fair share of wheeling and dealing in that time, basically stripping the team down to the bone while gaining some good prospects. However, sooner or later he’s going to have to stop messing around for a bit and let guys show what they can do. Also, a team needs a bit of veteran presence to steady the kids, and that job shouldn’t fall on just the manager and coaches.
This brings us to Kevin Newman.
Like a large number of current Bucs, he was a high draft pick—first round, nineteenth overall in 2015. His stellar career at the University of Arizona gave every indication that he would be a successful major league player, and indeed he made his debut in the Show three years later, on track with the usual minor-league time of a college player. In 2019, his first full year with the Pirates, he had a slash line of .308/.353/.446, with an OPS of .800 and a 3.0 WAR. His fielding was good too, primarily at shortstop with a few stints at second base. Overall, the Pirates had to be congratulating themselves for a draft pick that seemed to be panning out.
Then came 2020, which I imagine in the future is going to be 2020* due to the whole COVID thing. Nobody on any team was putting up any sort of superstar numbers. Newman certainly wasn’t—his slash line plummeted to .224/.281/.276, with a .556 OPS and -0.4 WAR. But, again, 2020*.
2021 looked like it was shaping up to be Newman’s bounceback year. Remember how excited everyone got during spring training when he was mashing to the tune of a .700 batting average? Of course, he was facing American League pitchers for the most part, and batters tend to take advantage of unfamiliarity. Back at PNC Park, it didn’t take long for the illusion to shatter. His fielding was very good, but his hitting was putrid. An everyday player in his prime should not be putting up a slash line of .226/.265/.309. His WAR improved ever so slightly to +0.5, and his OPS had the same tiny improvement, .574, but ugh, that slash line.
As I’ve been saying since GMBC came to the Burgh, it’s pretty obvious that the building blocks of the New and Improved Pirates are Bryan Reynolds and Ke’Bryan Hayes. Reynolds is on the verge of being a legitimate star, and Hayes is showing enough flashes (if he stays healthy) to do the same. There’s a lot of talent in the farm pipeline, particularly in the middle infield.
A middle infielder with a good glove, though, is a boon to a team trying to teach young pitchers to trust their defense. I know fielding isn’t nearly as sexy as hitting these days, but a lot of pitcher screwups can be deflected by deft fielding. Maybe the epidemic of pitchers needing Tommy John surgery because they feel the need to scream heat all the time could be abated by coaches hammering home that defense is there for a reason.
Rob Biertempfel of The Athletic was obviously bored because he solicited his readership to come up with Pirates trade proposals. Most of them could be summed up like this, by an Athletic commenter:
These fan-suggested trade pieces are fun in theory, but they’re always rendered moot by fans’ utter inability to be remotely realistic about their own players, or their assumption that other teams will part with their top prospects for scraps.
But I liked what Rob had to say here:
I expect the Pirates will tell other clubs over the next couple of months that Newman is available — actually, they’ve probably already done it. It makes sense. Newman’s minus-13 defensive runs saved from 2018-20 was sixth-worst among MLB shortstops, but he reversed course last season and became a Gold Glove finalist. He’s 28 years old and in his first year of arbitration eligibility. Newman’s career .257/.300/.353 slash line won’t drop any jaws, but he’s a smart runner — per Bill James, Newman produced a net gain of 27 bases last season, tops on the team — and has a knack for delivering walk-off hits. Still, it won’t be easy to get a decent return, as other clubs realize Newman might already be merely a spare part on the Pirates’ roster.
Of course, with very rare exceptions no one’s safe from the block, but at the same time, it’s dumb to get rid of every single veteran in exchange for the biological lottery tickets called prospects. Newman is well-liked in the clubhouse, and along with Ben Gamel is the senior player on the Bucs now that Jacob Stallings and Colin Moran are gone. But the footsteps he hears belong to Nick Gonzales, another first-rounder out of a western university who is steadily progressing through the farm system with a hot bat.
Do intangibles make someone worth hanging onto?
Kevin Newman may be about to find out.