PITTSBURGH – The Pirates find themselves with a vacancy to fill.
Kevin Newman sustained a left groin injury on Tuesday and will be heading to the 10-day injured list. Newman was bothered by a left groin injury earlier this season, but director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk pointed out that this is a new injury. With Newman likely sidelined for three-to-five weeks, Pittsburgh will need to figure out who captains their infield.
“We’ll kind of go from there and see where we’re at,” said manager Derek Shelton. “It’s an unfortunate thing. He had good at-bats last night. Kind of felt like he was finding his groove offensively. Any time you lose someone who plays a lot of innings for you, it’s unfortunate.”
Shelton’s assessment that Newman was finding his rhythm is correct. With a pair of two-hit games on Sunday and Tuesday, Newman bumped his wRC+ on the season up to an even 100. Last season, by comparison, Newman had a league-worst 54 wRC+. For now, that positive momentum has been halted. So, who takes over for Newman?
Diego Castillo, who will start at shortstop on Wednesday, is the most logical option to step in for Newman for the time being. The rookie has been knocking on the door of the starting role at second base, where he already has two defensive runs saved. The vacancy at shortstop provides Castillo the opportunity to start all the same, albeit across the infield.
Castillo is plenty familiar at the position. Between his time in the Majors and Minors, Castillo has spent just about 2,000 innings at shortstop. Castillo showed off his defensive prowess during Spring Training, most notably making a Derek Jeter-esque jump throw from the six-hole against the Twins.
“Every time that I’m in the lineup is an opportunity,” Castillo said.
Another option, as strange as it might sound, is Ke’Bryan Hayes. The hot corner will always be Hayes’ primary domain, but with Newman out, Hayes could see a game or two there as well. With the Pirates down five runs on Tuesday, Hayes had a two-inning cameo at shortstop, the first time he played the position in his entire professional career.
Shelton noted on Wednesday that the team planned to play him at shortstop during Spring Training, but the right ankle sprain that Hayes sustained put a hold on those plans. While Hayes might get an occasional look at shortstop, he likely won’t consistently captain the infield.
“I almost started him at short last week in a game,” Shelton said. “I’m sure he may do that at some point. He’s not going to have any problem. I think he we could put him anywhere on the field and it would be fine. It was an opportunity down [five] runs to get him out there and see how he reacted to it. The honest thing is he plays [at shortstop] half the games anyways because of left-handed shifts.”
And, of course, there’s also the matter of Oneil Cruz. In a vacuum, promoting Cruz appears to make the most sense. Cruz, the No. 26 overall prospect per MLB Pipeline, stands to be an integral part of the Pirates’ future. Barring the unforeseen, Cruz will be called up at some point this season. Newman’s injury offers the Pirates with an opportunity to make that decision now.
The shorstop has struggled to begin the season, slashing .190/.271/.317 in 16 games, but the slump shouldn’t be a knock against his readiness for the Major League level. In 68 games with Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis, Cruz hit .310 with 17 home runs and 19 steals. During Spring Training, Cruz iterated that he believes he’s ready for the show.
“Everybody in our system who’s on the roster at the upper levels will be given consideration,” Shelton said. “I don’t think right now we’ve made a decision yet.”