After being on many sportswriters’ projected roster cuts in Pittsburgh as it reconfigured the 40-man rosters before Thursday’s Rule 5 draft, Erik Gonzalez was protected … and signed to a $1.225 million contract.
It was certainly not a huge signing, as the four-year veteran played 2020 on a $725,000 contract, not much above baseball’s $563,500 starting salary.
After three ho-hum seasons with the Indians, the Pirates signed him last year, but he was on the injured list for much of the season after a horrendous head-on collision with centerfielder Starling Marte. This year Gonzalez batted .227 with three homers and 20 RBIs, not the kind of stats that get players kept on a 40-man roster.
It was a tale of two seasons for Gonzalez in 2020: He batted .282 with three homers and 15 RBIs in August, then fell off the offensive cliff in September with a .184 average with no homers and just five RBIs.
Still, not only did the Pirates ink him for 2021, but the day after the signing, general manager Ben Cherington told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he expects Gonzalez to battle it out with incumbent starter Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker, arguably the best shortstop in the organization.
“Someone is going to earn the right to play more [at] short than somebody else,” Cherington said. “We don’t know who that is yet. There’s always a chance that any of those three could end up playing somewhere else on the field depending what happens. We hope one of them steps up and takes the shortstop job. We’re not making that decision quite yet. We think there’s room for everybody and also plenty of room for competition.”
Saying that the trio would compete with one another was also surprising since the team didn't play Tucker at shortstop all season, instead giving him on-the-job training in the outfield, where he batted just .220, and the fact that Newman followed his sensational 2019 year with a dismal .224 average, just one homer, and 10 RBIs. Additionally, Newman didn’t steal a base, and led the Bucs with eight errors.
Despite the fact that there doesn’t appear to be an all-star game waiting for any of the three, the signing was not accompanied with any guarantee or even a mention of Gonzalez being the new starting shortstop.
“We feel pretty good about the deal we got on Gonzalez,” Cherington added, “and we know the defense is going to be good. We know that he hits the ball hard. Obviously, there was a stretch last year where it looked like the decision-making was improved, the results were getting better. Then it did not end well, clearly, the last few weeks there. But we felt like he is still someone we could see potentially earning a lot of playing time at short. If for some reason he doesn’t, he’s a good enough defender that he can be a safe backup at a number of positions.”
The signing does indicate that the team plans to trade second baseman Adam Frazier, a Gold Glove finalist for the second straight year with the Bucs. But his defensive range is not the best, and one of the three could slide over to that position.
The Bucs find themselves with several up-and-coming in-house options to challenge soon whoever plays at second this season. The most prominent is their top prospect, Nick Gonzales, drafted seventh overall as a shortstop, but shifted to second base, a rather clear indication that they expect him to the second sacker of the future, perhaps even in 2022.
Another player signed as a shortstop is number three prospect Oneil Cruz, but word around the team is that the Bucs are looking at the lanky athlete as a possible replacement for Gregory Polanco, after his contract ends after 2021.
Liover Peguero seems to be the heir apparent at shortstop, giving the Pirates an projected infield of Ke’Bryan Hayes, Peguero, Gonzales, and Josh Bell by 2023.