The Pirates have settled on Erik Gonzalez and Jung Ho Kang as their starters at shortstop and third base, respectively, to open the 2019 season, general manger Neal Huntington revealed to reporters Monday (Twitter links via Adam Berry of MLB.com).
Gonzalez’s primary competition for the shortstop role had been Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer, the latter of whom was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis this morning, per a team press release. Newman, it seems, will still have the opportunity to compete for a utility role with the club, though he could land in Indianapolis as well if the Buccos decide he requires everyday at-bats. Kang, meanwhile, beat out Colin Moran for the role of primary third baseman. Moran will see some time at first base as well, which could afford him a bit more playing time.
The 25-year-old Gonzalez came to the Pirates in the offseason trade that sent Jordan Luplow and Max Moroff to the Indians. Gonzalez had to make the club one way or another, given that he’s out of minor league options, though it wasn’t set in stone that he’d break camp as the regular shortstop. The organization’s confidence in his glove, it seems, ultimately helped to sway the decision, as neither Gonzalez (.233/.303/.367 in 33 PAs) nor Newman (.276/.290/.448 in 30 PAs) has had a particularly impactful spring at the plate.
Kang, 32 on Opening Day, returned to the Pirates in September after missing all of the 2017 season and most of the 2018 campaign due to DUI arrests in his native South Korea, which prevented him from securing a work visa. He’ll likely bring a steadier glove to the hot corner than Moran displayed in 2018 (-8 Defensive Runs Saved, -6.6 UZR), and Kang has also connected on five spring home runs, although he’s also struck out 13 times in 31 trips to the plate. Moran is hitting .214/.303/.357 in his own tiny sample of 32 PAs.
Neither decision comes with permanence, of course. Gonzalez is a mere .263/.292/.389 hitter in 275 Major League plate appearances with Cleveland, and if he’s unable to improve on that paltry OBP, his bat will be enough of a liability that it’d eventually merit contemplation of a switch. This will, however, be his first chance at regular playing time, as he was limited to a utility role with the Indians given the presence of more established players such as Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez.
Kang, meanwhile, appeared in only three big league games last season — his first MLB action since 2016. He’s on a one-year, $3MM contract with the Pittsburgh organization, so he’ll have a bit of a leash early in the season but isn’t compensated such that the organization would shy away from moving on if he isn’t providing value.