Making the Pirates better: Shortstop

You know what? I’m tired of being negative about this off-season. I still don’t think that things are going to play out terribly well for the Pirates this winter, but I also don’t think I’ve done a good job of making it clear that I don’t think the Pirates are breaking up the 1927 Yankees again. Ronny Cedeno and Ryan Doumit and Paul Maholm and Garrett Jones (should he be non-tendered) are all replaceable. They’re not All-Stars. They might be the best the Pirates can do for 2012, but doesn’t just thinking that make you feel dirty? I hope the Pirates can do better. So let’s sit down and think of ways Neal Huntington might be able to improve this team this winter, because otherwise, it’s going to be an awful and negative off-season.

Finding a good shortstop is hard, which is why I think letting Ronny Cedeno go is awfully hard to understand. Cedeno’s not necessarily a good shortstop, mind you, but he played very strong defense at short on a team that was better at getting ground balls than strikeouts. His value to the team was particularly driven home when he was hurt and Chase d’Arnaud played short. d’Arnaud was just as bad at the plate as Cedeno and worse in the field and it was noticeable. 

So what happens now that the Pirates have let Cedeno walk? The internal options aren’t all that great in 2012. I’m not sure what d’Arnaud will ever be capable of as a big league shortstop. His glove isn’t all that great and while his bat may come around some, I don’t know that it’ll be enough. Jordy Mercer’s glove is a bit better and he showed some pop in Double and Triple-A last year, but he’s got serious OBP problems and only 250 PAs above Double-A to boot. Pedro Ciriaco probably hits worse than either of them and while he’s got a decent defensive reputation, I’m not sure it’s enough. If I were ranking the three right now, I’d go Mercer/d’Arnaud/Ciriaco and I’d probably let Mercer and d’Arnaud battle it out for the spot in spring training, but it’d be best if it didn’t come to that. So what are the club’s other options?

The free agent market is not good. If you go to Fangraphs and sort 2011’s shortstops with 450+ PAs by WAR, you won’t see many names below Ronny Cedeno. The names you will see below Cedeno, you’ll also see on the free agent list: Alex Gonzalez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Orlando Cabrera. All three of those guys would probably play for the Pirates if the price was right. They shouldn’t. But who else is there on the list? John McDonald? Jamey Carroll? Ramon Santiago? Pass, pass, pass. Rafael Furcal’s play improved a bit once he was traded to the Cardinals, but there’s a good chance his defense will be atrocious. Cesar Izturis might work as a cheaper Ronny Cedeno replacement as his glovework is very, very good, but his bat is just terrible. Really, there’s not much to find here on the free agent market for the Pirates, because they’re not signing Jose Reyes and they’d be insane to try and sign Jimmy Rollins given his demands and his declining skillset. 

The best option for the Pirates might be, ulp, Nick Punto. He’s a strong fielder at short according to DRS and a heck of a fielder according to UZR and while I wouldn’t expect him to match his offensive output from 2011 again, he can at least take the occasional walk. I can pretty much promise you that if you’re sabermetrically inclined at all that John Wehner and Bob Walk and Greg Brown’s love for Punto will fill your eyes with blood and your heart with rage by the end of 2012. If the Pirates sign Nick Punto and somehow finish about .500 or get to the playoffs, he will be second behind Clint Hurdle in terms of receiving undeserved praise for the accomplishment and you will straight up want to commit a felony to make it stop. But that thing I said about decent shorstops being hard to find isn’t less true just because people overavlue the short, “scrappy” guy. 

Edited to add: Clint Barmes kind of fits this same role as Punto — a guy who’s glove grades really well at short in one advanced metric (DRS) and decent in another (UZR) and who can’t really hit but might sort of fake his way through it a bit (actually, he’s more likely to do that than Punto is). I’d forgotten the Astros moved him back to short after the Rockies had him at second in the Tulo era, but he’s definitely a free agent option. Thanks to @pghiconoclast for reminding me to mention him.

Where shorstop is different from starting pitching or catching, though, is that the Pirates don’t have a whole heck of a lot in the way of minor league talent at the position and so a trade might be worth pursuing. Beyond the Box Score had a good look at the position just a couple of weeks ago, which I’m using for a starting point here.  Jed Lowrie always comes up because he’s squeezed between Marco Scutaro, who the Red Sox are bringing back in 2012, and Jose Iglesias (actually, he might be a trade target himself since he can’t hit but has a great glove). There’s not really any guarantee Lowrie can hit, though, because he’s 27 and he hasn’t really done it in the big leagues over an extended period yet. He’s also quite injury prone. Still, if the Red Sox lose Papelbon, maybe the Pirates could swing a Hanrahan for Lowrie trade (I’m spitballing here, Ben Cherington is a smart guy by all accounts, which means he probably won’t overvalue closers or undervalue shortstops) or something along those lines. 

Another place to possibly look for shortstops would be Cleveland. SHOCKING NEWS, I know. But there’s not a whole ton of room for Luis Valbuena there and over parts of five seasons in Triple-A he’s hit .304/.387/.468 and though his big league performance record is spotty, he’s only got 806 PAs in four partial seasons at the big league level and he won’t be 26 until the end of the month, which means that there’s some room for improvement. It looks like he was primarily a second baseman in the minors, so I’m not sure how good his defense is and I’m not sure I’d give up a whole ton in a trade for him, but then he might not be as expensive in a trade as someone with a better reputation (like Lowrie) or a legitimate shortstop (like Iglesias). There is a decent chance he’d be an upgrade over what the Pirates have on the team and in the system, though, and that makes him worth considering.

At the end of the day, though, I’m guessing the Pirates want to take one more year to evaluate Mercer and d’Arnaud and Brock Holt before giving up on them entirely, which makes a trade less likely and John Perrotto’s guess from yesterday, that the Pirates will sign a short-term stopgap and go from there, more likely. Then again, if that’s what they wanted to do, why wouldn’t they just keep Cedeno? 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.