BRADENTON, Fla. -- The competition for the Pirates’ starting shortstop job has been underwhelming, to say the least.
Erik Gonzalez has gone 3-for-25 (.120) in exhibition games with one home run and 11 strikeouts. He also has been inconsistent in the field, making some above-average plays but also flubbing some easy chances.
Kevin Newman is 7-for-26 (.269) with one double, one homer and five strikeouts after going 3-for-4 on Thursday in an 11-2 victory over the Phillies. He has been the opposite of Gonzalez, making routine plays but not spectacular ones.
Not having anyone pull significantly ahead in the shortstop derby less than two weeks before opening day is a concern for the Pirates, even if they won’t say so publicly, as their chances of contending rely on good pitching and defense overcoming a so-so lineup.
The Pirates did not sign a shortstop in free agency because Neal Huntington could not squeeze one into the ultra-tight budget provided by Bob Nutting. Now there are no external options, unless a shortstop somehow reaches the waiver wire in the final days of spring training when teams are cutting their rosters to 25.
So, what should the Pirates do?
Two scouts, unsolicited, have told me in the last week they feel the Pirates should shift Jung Ho Kang to shortstop from third base, even though he has played just three major-league games in the past two seasons and suffered a severe knee injury in 2015.
“He’s their best option, hands down,” a scout from an American League team said of Kang, who was a star shortstop in the Korea Baseball Organization. “He’s moving better than I’ve seen him since the surgery. He has more range than I remember. Now, I’m not saying he would win the Gold Glove. I do think he’d play a competent shortstop and would give the Pirates a lot more bat than Gonzalez or Newman.”
Kang has requested he play strictly third base, but there are indications the Pirates might ask him to play some shortstop before breaking camp March 24.
Meanwhile, a scout from a National League team also endorsed Kang as the shortstop and took things one step further. He believes the Pirates should jump Ke’Bryan Hayes to the major leagues from Double-A Altoona and make him the opening-day third baseman over Colin Moran.
“I know the Pirates move their players slowly, but they need to make an exception here, especially if they are serious about winning,” the scout said. “This kid is ready to play right now. He’d be a considerable upgrade over Moran. Defensively, he’d be the second-best third baseman in the National League after (the Rockies’ Nolan) Arenado. He’s really blossoming as a hitter, too, and he’d more than hold his own against major-league pitching.”
• Jordan Lyles is almost certainly going to be the Pirates’ fifth starter and is a downgrade from Ivan Nova, whose $9.1-million salary was basically dumped to the White Sox in December. However, it’s hard to fault Huntington for the move. He had to cut $15 million from the payroll and dealing Nova made a big dent in that figure. Somebody had to go, and Huntington gambled the Pirates could piece together a No. 5 starter. Whether they can or not remains to be seen. -- Perrotto
• The one positive to come from Gregory Polanco’s shoulder surgery is it has seemed to help him mature. Pirates people rave about how hard he has worked during his rehab and how much more seriously he is taking the game. Polanco has always been a likeable guy, but some in the organization have felt he had tried to get by strictly on talent. -- Perrotto
• Joel Hanrahan, the Pirates' former closer, is rising through the system as a pitching coach, now with Class AA Altoona, and his passion for the position is drawing praise throughout the organization. I'm told they're lucky to have him in a different way, as well: He'd been based in Texas, and the Rangers could have had first crack, but they didn't take him seriously enough. Former players almost always have their desire questioned when it comes to coaching. The Pirates came knocking, and that was that. -- Dejan Kovacevic
• Erik Gudbranson's show of force against the Capitals' Tom Wilson three nights ago met with robust approval from the citizens on hand at PPG Paints Arena, but that also ran to the very top. Obviously not going to name names here, but one such individual was glowing after that game about Gudbranson's impact on the entire team ... even while also acknowledging the opposite impact of sending away Ryan Reaves late in the 2017-18 season. As this individual worded it, losing Reaves left shoulders slumped here and spirits raised in Washington and Columbus. -- Kovacevic
• When the Penguins took the ice for their morning skate at KeyBank Center Thursday it was somewhat surprising Bryan Rust was out there and Kris Letang was not. Turns out, Letang did not even make the trip to Buffalo. That raised a few red flags but Mike Sullivan reported afterward that Letang and Olli Maatta were both back in Pittsburgh skating with skills coach Ty Hennes. I am told Letang has not suffered any setback in his recovery from an upper body injury sustained during a scrum in the Feb. 23 outdoor game in Philadelphia. After Letang took part in the March 5 morning skate at PPG Paints Arena and then again the following day in practice in a non-contact sweater, it was almost assumed he would soon be returning. However, Letang then had an illness that sidelined him. Due to the busy game schedule, the Penguins haven't had a practice since March 6. Today's session at the Lemieux Complex will be the Penguins' first in 10 days. -- Chris Bradford in Buffalo, N.Y.
• It's that time of year again. As the NCAA hockey season starts winding down, many of the nation's top college players -- both drafted and undrafted -- have started signing with NHL teams. Most famously, Quinn Hughes, the seventh pick in last summer's draft, signed with the Canucks after Michigan's season ended and could make his debut next week. With their dearth of picks in the NHL draft in recent seasons, identifying and signing undrafted free agents has become a key component of the Penguins' player personnel strategy. It's how they landed Zach Aston-Reese from Northeastern in 2017, Casey DeSmith from UNH in 2014 and, before that, Conor Sheary from UMass in 2013. This week, the Penguins signed Jake Lucchini from Michigan Tech to a one-year deal. -- Bradford
• Thirteen games after he came back from his fractured left leg and two nights after he posted his second multi-point game since his return, Justin Schultz reports he feels 100 percent ... other than his upper lip. Schultz has been sporting a nasty looking cut on his upper lip since the Bruins game that required stitches both internally and externally. How many? "I stopped counting," he told me. -- Bradford
• The Steelers have taken the same tack in free agency since it first began in 1993. They're not a team that goes crazy right away, preferring to re-sign their own players than signing guys from other teams, who have typically overpriced themselves in their market or are declining players because of age, injury or both. So why is it every year Steelers fans gnash their teeth over the team sitting back and allowing the market to clear before it makes a relatively cheap signing or two? Since free agency began in 1993 -- coincidentally, my first year covering the team -- the biggest-name player the Steelers have signed was Jeff Hartings to a 6-year, $24.75-million contract to leave Detroit for Pittsburgh in 2001. Kevin Greene and Will Wolford were other "big name" guys, but were acquired for rather modest deals. Greene, for example, got $5.35 million over three years. There are many reasons for that. But one of the biggest is they don't want to upset the apple cart in their locker room. Player salaries are well known. So what the Steelers do, more or less, results in a caste system. They're never going to pay a player at a certain position more than they pay an established star of their own who is on his second contract. So, for example, spending $16.5 million per year on a left tackle -- and an average one at that, like Oakland did with Trent Brown -- would never happen in Pittsburgh, even if that position was a glaring need. Why? They're not going to pay an outside player more money than Maurkice Pouncey or David DeCastro, two of their own who happen to be two of the best players in the league at their positions. It makes for a happier locker room. -- Dale Lolley at Rooney Complex
• So what's going on with Bud Dupree's contract? We can assume that since the Steelers did not announce he had been released or given a contract extension, those two things did not happen. So that means Dupree is probably on the roster at a guaranteed $9.2 million. Why probably? Well, one option would be to ask Dupree to take a pay cut rather than be released. His agent, Todd France, isn't returning phone calls, not that he would want to make it known his client took a cut. And the Steelers aren't saying anything either. But, even if Dupree is on the books for $9.2 million, it's not the worst thing ever. After all, he'll be off the books after this year, which would explain why Anthony Chickillo's two-year deal has a salary of $805,000 this year and $4.5 million in 2020. That might seem like a lot, but given the contracts signed by some edge rushers this week -- $13 million per year for Preston Smith and $16.5 million for Za'Darius Smith in Green Bay, for example -- Dupree's $9.2 million in 2019 will wind up being about average for a starting edge player. T.J. Watt is going to be a very happy man in a couple of years. It also means that an edge rusher is definitely on the draft board in the first few rounds this year. -- Lolley
• That's going to be the upside of Antonio Brown being off the books after this season. The Steelers are going to wind up having $60 to $80 million in salary cap space in 2020, a figure unheard of for this team. But, they'll have some interesting decisions to make. Players such as Javon Hargrave and Sean Davis will be coming off their rookie deals -- unless they're extended this offseason -- while JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner will be heading into the final year of their rookie contracts. -- Lolley
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