Middle infield wasn’t exactly a position of strength for your Pittsburgh Pirates in 2021, but there’s reason to believe that things could look a little better in 2022.
Uber rookie Oneil Cruz has caught everyone’s imagination – not so much for what he might be capable of at shortstop, but what he might be capable of doing with the bat. I’ve long lobbied that the Pirates should just move the 6’7” Cruz to a less taxing position – say, right field – and let him concentrate on his hitting. But those in charge seem committed to keeping him at shortstop until he proves he can’t play the position.
I see their point. I’ve never seen Cruz play for any extended period of time and they have. So if they want to give him a shot at short, why not? Maybe he’ll show he’s able to handle the position at least satisfactorily – and his booming bat will compensate for any defensive shortcomings he might have.
So I’m certainly willing to let Cruz take his shot, providing he passes all the Spring Training tests to the satisfaction of Derek Shelton, GM Ben Cherington, and the rest of the staff. Besides, if I have to watch another season of Kevin Newman at the plate, I’m not sure I can take it. And I’ve disembarked from the Cole Tucker train.
That leaves the right side of the keystone combination up for discussion. Last year, no fewer than seven players – Adam Frazier, the leader with 94 games played at the position, Wilmer Difo (28), Rodolfo Castro (20), Hoy Park (16), the aforementioned Newman (15) and Tucker (9), and Michael Chavis (7) — suited up at second base. Frazier was shipped off to the San Diego Padres at the trade deadline, and Difo was outrighted off the 40-man roster in November, so that leaves five possible candidates for starters – at least from the ranks of the returnees. Diego Castillo, a 24-year-old Venezuelan obtained from the New York Yankees with Park for Clay Holmes, might also figure in the mix, as he showed well at Double-A Altoona and later Triple-A Indianapolis after joining the organization.
Of that group, I’d like to see the Bucs focus on Castro and Chavis, although I’m certainly open to Castillo if he continues to come on. Castro had a very unusual start to his big league career last summer; after being recalled from Altoona in early July, his first five hits for the Pirates all left the yard. So even though he was hitting just .238 through his first 23 plate appearance, he boasted a 1.257 OPS.
Those eye-popping numbers didn’t last, however. After seeing a fair amount of playing time in July and August, the 22-year-old Dominican returned to the minor leagues. He finished the 2021 big league campaign with a .198 batting average, five home runs and eight RBIs to go with a .653 OPS. He struck out 27 times in 86 at-bats.
Castro got some work in during the winter, playing in the Dominican Winter League, where he hit .235/.783 in 85 at-bats over 25 games. Given that he had just 35 at-bats at the Triple-A level last year – compared with 285 at Altoona – I’d rather see Castro start the season at Indianapolis and see what he could do playing every day there.
That leaves us with Chavis. A No. 1 pick of the Boston Red Sox (26th overall) in June 2014 draft when Cherington was the team’s GM, Chavis was acquired from the Sox for left-handed reliever Austin Davis on July 30 after falling out of favor with the Boston regime.
Chavis had decent numbers during his first three years in the Red Sox system, then broke out in 2017 by hitting .282 with a .910 OPS between High-A and Double-A. But his 2018 season was interrupted by an 80-game suspension after testing positive for a prohibited performance-enhancing substance. He appeared in only 46 games that season and hit .298 with a .919 OPS.
After starting the 2019 season at Triple-A Pawtucket, where he batted .257 in 21 games, he joined the Red Sox, where he hit .254/.766 in 382 plate appearances. He showed plenty of pop, slugging 18 home runs and driving in 58, but struck out 127 times while walking just 31 times.
His OPS dropped by more than 100 points during the 2020 pandemic season, and he batted just .212 in 158 plate appearances. Last season, he appeared in just 31 games for the Red Sox and 24 more with Triple-A Worcester before being dealt to the Pirates.
His time with the Pirates was cut short by a right elbow strain, but in 42 plate appearances he batted .357 with an .857 OPS. He also played in 25 games for Triple-A Indianapolis, where he hit .278/.951.
Chavis will turn 27 in mid-August, so it’s not like he’s ancient. And given the options the Pirates have at second base, I’d like to see Chavis get a long look during the first half of the season to see if his raw power – graded at 65 by FanGraphs – can translate to game power. That’ll give Castro time to see a steady diet of Triple-A pitching, and then the Bucs can decide who to rely more on during the second half of the season.
Unless one (or both) of them exceed expectations, it’s unlikely either will figure into the Pirates’ plans as a long-term starter at second base. That’s because 2020 top draft pick Nick Gonzales should be ready to rake no later than the latter part of 2023. But both could prove to be nice bench pieces – or even trade pieces – down the road.