Pirates infield evolution: Why GM Ben Cherington’s job is only halfway done


PITTSBURGH — Earlier this month during the general managers’ meetings in Las Vegas, the Pirates laid the groundwork to trade infielder Kevin Newman, their longest-tenured player. The approach made sense. Newman, 29, lost the starting shortstop job last season and next year might have fit only as a bench guy on a club that’s in the throes of a full-on youth movement.

Trade discussions percolated as the Nov. 18 deadline to offer contracts to arbitration-eligible players approached. Anyone who’s non-tendered would become a free agent.

At the 8 p.m. ET cutoff, the Pirates tendered a contract to Newman, who’s in his second year of arbitration eligibility. Within an hour, Newman was swapped to the Reds for reliever Dauri Moreta.

“I can’t speak to whether (the timing) was coincidental or not,” GM Ben Cherington said. “Whatever our situation was at shortstop, Kevin’s a major-league player and we felt tendering him was the right decision. We were very open to him being on the team. This (trade) opportunity came up and we thought it was the best decision for the Pirates.”

The Newman trade was another step toward reshaping the Pirates’ infield — something that’s been a work in progress since Cherington was hired three years ago.

In 2019, the final season under former GM Neal Huntington, the Pirates finished 69-93. The infield consisted of three veterans — first baseman Josh Bell (134 starts), second baseman Adam Frazier (142 starts) and third baseman Colin Moran (121 starts) — and Newman (104 starts), who played his first full season in the majors.

Cherington blew it up, starting with a Christmas Eve 2020 trade that sent Bell to the Nationals. Frazier was dealt at the deadline in 2021. Moran, a defensive liability who never became the thumper everyone expected, was granted free agency after the 2021 season.

This year, the Pirates’ most frequent infielders were first baseman Michael Chavis (107 starts), second baseman Newman (42 starts), shortstop Oneil Cruz (79 starts) and third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes (133 starts).

It was a setup done partly by plan, partly on the fly. It was clear all along that Newman would start at short only until Cruz arrived and bumped him to second. Chavis became the de facto everyday first baseman only because Yoshi Tsutsugo flopped and was released in August.

Three seasons into their infield rebuild, the Pirates are halfway home, as Cruz and Hayes figure to be here for a long time. In April, Hayes signed an eight-year, $70 million extension. Cruz has six years of team control remaining and most likely will be targeted for an extension.

Cruz is an erratic defender, but his speed, arm and athleticism are too good to simply give up on. Still, Cherington stopped short of saying shortstop is Cruz’s job to lose next year.

“I think we want to create competition there, whether it’s guys that are already here (or we) wouldn’t rule out adding an infielder, either,” Cherington said. “He’s a really talented player. We want to give him a chance to continue to improve, and young players have to have a chance to play a lot to do that.”

Will Oneil Cruz stick at shortstop long term? (Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

The right side of the infield remains in flux. Next season, the Pirates will have their fourth different Opening Day first baseman in a four-year span. And for the second year in a row, there are a lot of candidates at second base, but no clear front-runner.

“We’d certainly like to get more stability sooner than later,” Cherington said. “There’s been a lot of different guys playing out there. I think that means we’re closer to (having) more stability because some of those younger players have had a chance to get some traction.”

Ji-Man Choi, acquired two weeks ago from the Rays, is a short-term solution at first base. Choi, 31, is expected to have recovered from surgery to remove a bone chip in his right elbow in time for spring training. He will be a free agent after the 2023 season.

Choi could get occasional starts as the designated hitter, but Cherington hasn’t yet identified who the primary DH will be. Outfielder Miguel Andújar, who last season was claimed off waivers from the Yankees, might be a first base/DH possibility.

“It totally depends on the rest of our offseason,” Cherington said. “If we add in the outfield, maybe there ends up being more opportunity (for Andújar) at first base. I think he’s prepared for both. I suppose it could be some combination.”

Outfielder Miguel Andújar could also see some time at first base and DH. (Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

Tuesday, the Pirates claimed first baseman Lewin Díaz off waivers from the Marlins. Díaz, 26, spent parts of the past three seasons in the majors and is out of minor-league options. He is an elite defender, but has hit .181/.227/.340 with 13 homers.

The Pirates hope slugger Malcom Nuñez, who arrived last summer in the José Quintana trade, eventually will be the long-term answer at first base.

When the Pirates reset their 40-man roster last week to protect prospects from the Rule 5 draft, Nuñez was passed over. It’s a calculated risk by management that Nuñez — who won’t turn 22 until March and has just 13 at-bats with Triple-A Indianapolis — can sneak through.

“It’s really (not an indication) of whether we believe in the players or not,” Cherington said. “It’s just you only have 40 spots and we have to use those as strategically as we can, particularly in the offseason.”

Infielder Jared Triolo, a second-round draft pick in 2019, was protected from the Rule 5 draft. He hit .282/.376/.419 with nine homers and missed the last three weeks of the season after hyperextending his left knee.

Triolo was drafted as a third baseman, but he also played a handful of games last season at shortstop and in center field. Although he worked out at first and second base this month during a position players camp in Bradenton, Fla., Triolo is a better fit on the left side of the infield.

“We’d probably want to keep him in spots on the field that are a little higher up the defensive spectrum,” Cherington said, adding that Triolo also needs to get some at-bats at Indy before he’s ready for a call-up.

Who does that leave in the mix at second base? Rodolfo Castro, Ji Hwan Bae, Diego Castillo and Tucupita Marcano are all on the 40-man roster.

“I think you named all the names,” Cherington said with a grin. “We’ll see what the rest of the offseason brings.”

Marcano figures to be a long shot to become a regular starter at second base. Castro, Bae and Castillo have enough versatility to rotate at second while also playing in other spots.

“In the short term, we think (with) those guys we could put together a combination of players and get improved production over what we got last year,” Cherington said. “We’ll continue to have our eyes out this offseason if there are ways to improve that further.”

A foot injury forced Nick Gonzales to miss 10 weeks this past season at Double-A Altoona. (Josh Lavallee / Pittsburgh Pirates)

It’s interesting that Cherington used “in the short term” there. It might indicate management is willing to be patient until one of those guys finally grabs hold of the position. Or, more likely, it’s foreshadowing the eventual arrival of top-10 prospects Liover Peguero, Nick Gonzales and 2022 first-rounder Termarr Johnson.

Peguero was acquired in Cherington’s first trade as Pirates GM, when Starling Marte was shipped to the Diamondbacks in January 2020. He was the everyday shortstop this year with Double-A Altoona, but also made 19 starts at second base. If Cruz sticks at short, will Peguero become a full-time second baseman?

“Peggy’s a natural shortstop and he’s gonna keep playing shortstop and honing his skills there,” farm director John Baker said. “You always want to keep people playing shortstop as long as possible until something forces them out. We also make sure to expose our guys to different positions. So Peggy plays some second base to make sure he’s comfortable on the other side of the bag.”

After a trying season with Altoona, Gonzales batted .279/.351/.500 with three homers in 18 games in the Arizona Fall League. Scouts there told The Athletic’s Zach Buchanan that Gonzales projects to be at least adequate defensively at second base with superb bat skills. The Pirates would gladly take that for the next half-dozen seasons or so.

(Top photo of Ke’Bryan Hayes and Oneil Cruz: Randy Litzinger / Associated Press)


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