With his four hits last night, Brock Holt quickly ascended to the top of every single Pirate fan's "Please tell me this guy can be better than Clint Barmes when Neil Walker comes back" list. Because of the Pirates' utter lack of shortstop depth in the minors before Alen Hanson's emergence this year (and maybe again after Hanson makes what seems like an inevitable move to second base) I've been keeping an eye on Holt since he was drafted in the 9th round of the 2009 draft in the same way that I tried to keep tabs on Jordy Mercer and Chase d'Arnaud before him; I don't always write about prospects here but he's definitely one of the few guys I tried to keep an eye on beyond the obvious top prospects.
Let's get a Brock Holt career history out of the way here. He signed quickly after being drafted in 2009 and went to State College, just like you'd expect a college draftee to do. He performed pretty well there, hitting .299/.361/.449 with six homers (more than half of his career minor league total) over 66 games. That was enough for the Pirates to skip him to Bradenton in 2010, where he hit .351/.410/.438 in 47 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He finally played a full season for Altoona in 2011, as a 23-year old. He was decent if unspectacular there, hitting .288/.357/.387 over the season with 30 doubles, nine triples, and a homer. He started 2012 out in Altoona again, though that may have had more to do with Jordy Mercer and Chase d'Arnaud starting the season in Indianapolis. As you'd expect with a decent hitting prospect repeating Double-A at the age of 24, Holt was much better with the Curve than he was last year, going .322/.389/.432 with 24 doubles, six triples, and two homers in 102 games before his promotion to Indy. He killed the ball there, hitting .432/.444/.537 with seven doubles and a homer in 24 games. That lead directly to his call-up, where he's now played four games for the Pirates in place of the injured Neil Walker.
The Pirates' options at shortstop at the big league level right now are not great. I don't think anyone would try to argue that point. Clint Barmes has been an offensive black hole that has made him a barely-above-replacement shortstop, even though both DRS and UZR rate him as one of the best defensive shortstops in either league. Great glove or not, barely-above-replacement is unacceptable. Josh Harrison isn't quite a big league hitter and his glove doesn't really work at shortstop for anything more than a spot-start. Jordy Mercer is the kind of player you try to talk yourself into when Clint Barmes is your starting shortstop; his glove his decent and he can hit with some pop, but it seems pretty unlikely that that pop will make up for his low batting average and OBP, especially at the big league level. Maybe if he was given a regular job at short he'd be better than Barmes, but it's not a slam dunk or anything. Chances are pretty good that it'd be a wash.
So what about Holt? Since he was drafted, there have been plenty of questions about his defense. His arm isn't supposed to be terribly strong and anecdotally, I haven't been impressed with his range at second base in his (admittedly super-short) stint with the Pirates. His line in the minor leagues has always been very batting-average driven; over four seasons he drew 144 walks in 1,620 plate appearances, which is a rate of 8.9%. That means, of course, that his line in the minor leagues (.317/.381/.427) was very batting-average driven. Without much power, that's a red flag.
The refrain this morning when I asked where all the Brock Holt love suddenly came from overnight is that the Pirates current options at shortstop are crap and that he's got to be better than that. I'm just not honestly sure I see it; Barmes' glove is very good, and Holt's isn't. Mercer's glove is decent and he has some pop. Holt might be a better utility guy than Josh Harrison, but then, his minor league line (.317/.381/.427 in 1,620 plate appearances) and Harrison's (.306/.355/.424) aren't hugely different beyond Mercer having a bit more patience than Harrison (this is also true of a hummingbird and so not really all that much of a compliment).
Really, what I see Holt as is a slightly different version of Harrison. Harrison can occasionally drive balls into gaps, Holt will probably be better a hitting for a decent average and occasionally walking. Should the Pirates play him at second base every day while Walker's hurt? Of course they should. Should they find him at-bats at short or to occasionally spell Walker if he's still scorching hot when Walker returns? Again, yes. I'm just not sure how likely this hot streak is to carry forward; his minor league line strikes me as more flash than substance and literally two days ago, Edgar Gonzalez was making him look dumb at the plate.
All of that being said, the Pirates are in a playoff race right now and so if Brock Holt can give them one scorching hot week at the plate in September, he'll be enormously valuable to that effort no matter where his career takes him from here. Given that he came to the team scorching hot, that it'll take some time before big league teams really get a book on him, and that the Pirates are playing the Cubs and Astros right now, that doesn't seem impossible. Let's keep our fingers crossed for this scenario and cross the other bridges when we get to them.