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Kevin Gorman: Pirates aren’t ready for new man at shortstop yet

September 1, 2018
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Pirates infielder Kevin Newman smiles in the dugout after joining the team before a game against the Cubs Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018, at PNC Park.

Jordy Mercer has been such a mainstay in the middle of their infield, playing at least 100 games each of the past six seasons, that it was hard to imagine anyone else starting at shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Not until August, anyway.

With Mercer an impending free agent, it was something of a surprise the 31-year-old was still with the club after the nonwaiver trade deadline. In NL wild-card contention after winning 11 consecutive games and 15 of 20 last month, the Pirates didn’t dare move Mercer.

Now, with Mercer on the 10-day disabled list with a left calf strain, the Pirates could be getting a glimpse at the future of the position. Especially after they purchased from Triple-A Indianapolis the contract of 2015 first-round pick Kevin Newman.

Before you could do your best “Seinfeld” impression, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle made it clear he isn’t looking at long-term plans to replace Mercer in the lineup just yet.

Instead, the Pirates started Adeiny Hechavarria for the third consecutive game Friday night against the NL Central-leading Chicago Cubs. The slick shortstop, who will be a free agent at season’s end, was acquired from Tampa Bay on Aug. 6 to add athleticism to the middle infield.

“I don’t want us to lose sight of why we brought in Hechavarria,” Hurdle said. “We brought in Newman, but if Mercer’s not hurt, he’s not here. He’s earned this opportunity because of an injured player. He’s a good, young prospect.

“You don’t force playing time for him right now, in my mind. You wait for playing time to be presented and open up, and I believe it will come his way because I don’t think we’re giving enough credit to the guy playing shortstop right now.”

That was Hurdle’s way of saying that the Pirates aren’t ready to give up on the possibility of making the playoffs. As unrealistic as that is starting to appear for the Pirates, who entered Friday 10 games out of first place and 6½ games back in the wild-card race, this isn’t the time to start playing a rookie at the infield’s most pivotal position just to see what he can do.

Especially when the 25-year-old Newman, who batted .302 with four homers and 35 RBIs at Indianapolis, appears to be a younger version of Mercer: a solid but unspectacular glove at short, a hitter who projects to have a better batting average but possess less power.

Perhaps Newman can have the type of MLB debut Austin Meadows did, winning NL Rookie of the Month honors in May after batting .409 with four home runs and seven RBIs in his first 13 games. Even that backfired, as the Pirates went 3-10 in that span and 17-31 before Meadows was sent back to Indianapolis in mid-July.

But Newman’s first callup has value, even if the Pirates don’t treat it as anything more than a short-term injury replacement. Mostly because he has a chance to learn from Mercer, a pro’s pro at the position.

Mercer is one of three holdovers, along with Josh Harrison and Starling Marte, from the teams that made three consecutive playoff appearances. So Mercer isn’t treating Newman as a threat but rather a fellow middle infielder he can mentor, like Clint Barmes and Neil Walker did for him.

Upon learning of Newman’s impending arrival, Mercer requested that Pirates clubhouse and equipment manager Scott Bonnett put Newman’s locker next to his own. That way, Mercer can answer any rookie queries, which can range from what time to arrive at PNC Park to what to wear and when to stretch to where to sit on the team plane.

“I want him next to me, so if he does have a question, it’s easy,” Mercer said. “He can talk to me nonstop, because I know how influential guys were when I got called up. It helped my situation out, and I’m trying to do the same for him.

“It’s nice to have somebody to let you know and give you a heads-up. He can play. We already know that. Once he gets on the field, he’s just going to go out and play. Yeah, you can give him some tidbits about what hitters might do, this guy or that guy but, most of the time, you just go out and play and let his talent take over. But the little things allow the transition to go so much easier, put your mind at rest to go out and play and be comfortable.”

Hurdle downplayed the difficulty of the transition by using Troy Tulowitzki as an example of a shortstop who showed supreme confidence as a rookie. A first-round pick, Tulowitzki batted .291 with 24 home runs and 99 RBIs in 155 games with the Colorado Rockies in 2007. But turning two could be another story.

“There is a degree of difference,” Hurdle said. “I wouldn’t say there’s a great degree of difficulty because turning a double play from spots on the field is turning a double play from spots on the field. If you’re a gifted fielder, you’re a gifted fielder.

“It may be just learning some mannerisms about the other guy (at second base), what side he likes the ball on when you’re in a certain spot. There are some learning aspects that can come into play. But the overall game set, I’ve got to believe it’s two more of the fluid positions in the field that can be easier to transition to and get to know other people.”

Newman got his first taste of the majors in the ninth inning in the 1-0 loss to the Cubs on Thursday night and was still smiling about the “awesome experience” of his dream coming true. Next, he’s looking forward to making his first major-league start for the Pirates.

“I don’t know,” Newman said. “Whenever it is, I’ll be ready.”

Whether the Pirates are ready for their future at shortstop to start is another story.

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