Feb. 28—If asked to reveal the starting shortstop as spring training begins, Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton’s answer would sound like something out of a famous Abbott and Costello comedy sketch.
I don’t know.
Never mind that he played third base in the “Who’s On First” routine. For the Pirates, the most important position on the field also promises to be their most competitive position battle, with three players who previously failed to lock down a starting job fighting for the spot.
Erik Gonzalez started the 2019 season at shortstop before suffering a broken collarbone in a collision. Kevin Newman finished that season as the starter, then began the ’20 season at short before scuffling at the plate and in the field and getting shifted to second. After playing in the outfield last season, Cole Tucker has moved back to his natural position.
Along with center field, shortstop is one of two positions in the starting lineup that is up for grabs when right-hander Chad Kuhl takes the mound as the Pirates open Grapefruit League play at 1:05 p.m. Sunday against the Baltimore Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota.
“That’s interesting,” Tucker said this week from Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. “That means that we haven’t done a really good job of nailing those down the last couple years. But we’re trying to. I really want to win the shortstop job. That’s no secret.”
Gonzalez is the oldest (29) and highest-paid ($1.225 million) of the three and started the most games at shortstop (38) last season. Newman, 27, has the most career games at short (148) after starting 104 in 2019. Tucker, 24, is the youngest (24) and has played only 43 career games at shortstop in the majors, just 11 more than he has in the outfield.
There is no clear-cut frontrunner, Shelton said, adding he was transparent with the trio about the open competition.
Shelton credited the character of Gonzalez, Newman and Tucker for how they have been supportive of each other despite chasing the same starting position.
“We’re all selfless, and we’re all selfish,” Tucker said. “We all want what’s best for this team. We also want what’s best for our careers.
“But once the competition ends, the internal competition of who’s going to be our shortstop, who’s going to be this, who’s going to be that, we have 162 games to go compete and go win as a team and get better as a team and progress as a team.”
“As we’ve seen, everything changes during the season. There’s a lot of next man up. There’s a lot of stay ready. There’s a lot of people picking up the pieces. We know that. But we’re going out every day and trying to win this job.”
Where Gonzalez brings a good glove that can play shortstop, second or third base, he has to prove he can be consistent at the plate.
He had a red-hot, eight-game stretch in early August when he hit .452 with seven extra-base hits — going 4 for 5 with six RBIs, including a 443-foot home run, against the Detroit Tigers — before cooling off by batting .184 in September.
Newman followed a strong rookie season in which he batted .308 with 27 doubles, 12 homers and 64 RBIs with a sophomore slump. He hit .224, lost his leadoff spot in the order and committed eight errors in the field.
Newman spent the offseason focused on his footwork and range in an effort to be better positioned to make plays.
“The routine play is important for him,” Shelton said. “That’s something we’ve talked about — minimizing errors and first-step efficiency. I know he did a lot of work on that this offseason and I give him credit because we challenged him on it when he left. It was something that we we talked to him about. I know he worked very hard on it this offseason.”
After making headlines last season for switching to the outfield, Tucker made more this winter for dating actress Vanessa Hudgens. Tucker flashed his athleticism in center field and is known for his acrobatic plays in the hole. Now that he’s left the outfield grass to return to the infield dirt, Tucker wants to show he can hit better than the .215 he did in his first 93 career games.
“Just trying to rake,” Tucker said, “so I don’t give them an option.”
It’s a friendly rivalry for Tucker and Newman, whose friendship predates their tenure with the Pirates. Newman played at Arizona and was Tucker’s host for his recruiting visit, only for them to be selected by the Pirates in the first round in back-to-back years in 2014 and ’15.
“It’s hard to explain, but we are competing,” Newman said. “At the same time, when we’re out there with each other at short, he makes a good play, I’m the first one to be like, ‘Sick play. Keep it going. That’s awesome. Good job.’ Vice-versa when I make a good play. He’s hype for me. We are really good friends off the field, so it’s just one of those things where we’re both going to go out there and compete to the best of our ability. At the end of the day there’s really no hard feelings because it’s baseball. Whoever gets the job gets the job. That’s just part of it.”
Shelton has preached the importance of versatility on the Pirates, so whoever doesn’t win the shortstop job could end up getting playing time at second base or in the outfield. But the trio of candidates don’t want to hear such talk right now, not with a starting opportunity to seize. They also are well aware the Pirates have stockpiled prospects at their position, with prized minor leaguers Oneil Cruz, Ji-Hwan Bae and Liover Peguero in training camp.
“We’re really gunning for those spots, really are leaning into this competition,” Tucker said. “I’m excited for games to start happening because that’s when you learn so much. That’s when people can really separate themselves.”
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .
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