Neil Walker: Probably the most certain part of this team going forward is Neil Walker at second base. Walker appears to be one of the most durable players on the Pirates and once again I am expecting 150+ starts from him this season. Hopefully Walker is able to shake off hi sophomore slump of last season and return closer to his rookie numbers. I do see him getting closer to them but not quite matching. His batting average should stay in the 270-280 range but where improvement will come is with his power as I expect his slugging percentage to be around .450. With another year under his belt at the second base position Walker’s defensive game should continue to improve and it would not be surprising to see him be average defensively at the position this season.
Gustavo Nunez: I am hoping the Pirates will not go with Nunez as the middle infield backup to begin the season but as of right now it appears rather likely that will be the case. I am not going to get into Nunez too much right here because he profiles more as a shortstop than second baseman. However I will say he is likely to be Walker’s backup to start the 2012 season, how long it will last is another matter.
Anderson Hernandez: Another rather odd move by the Pirates this offseason was signing Anderson Hernandez. It is always nice to have a veteran middle infielder down in AAA in case of emergencies but there does not appear to be a spot for Hernandez. In theory Hernandez will be given a chance to win the backup middle infield job out of Spring Training but in reality the only way I see him even sticking in AAA is if the Pirates opt to carry an extra reserve infielder at the expense of a 5th outfielder. Either way Hernandez should have little to impact on the Pirates this season.
Others: If there arises a need for Walker to be spelled for an extended time chances are it will be neither Nunez nor Hernandez that fills the role. Instead it will likely be players whose primary position is either shortstop or third base. The four likely candidates are Chase d’Arnaud, Jordy Mercer, Yamaico Navarro and Josh Harrison. I will get more into those four at their primary positions but one or all of these players could see time at second base this season. Navarro and Harrison are candidates to make the major league team out of spring training and could end up serving as Walker’s backup.
Jarek Cunningham: The top 2nd base prospect in the Pirates system could rank amongst the Pirates top 15 prospects if he could just manage to stay healthy. He has some strike zone and defensive issues but his bat has the potential to make him a good major league second baseman. He should be moving up to AA this season but due to his injury filled 2011 I am expecting him to repeat A+. If Cunningham manages to stay healthy I could see him posting a good season and become a very good prospect for the Pirates. However his injury history combined with his lack of strike zone discipline makes me doubtful that will happen.
Brock Holt: Holt appeared destined to be moving up to AAA to start this season but the acquisitions of McGehee, Nunez, Navarro and to a smaller extent Hernandez likely means he will repeat AA. With no real option to play shortstop in AA I see Holt getting the majority of the playing time there even though he is better suited as a second baseman. He does a lot of things well but nothing great. Holt has some speed and has shown a fair amount of plate discipline along with decent defensive abilities but he lacks anything that makes him stand out. Most likely Holt’s upside is that of a Major league utility player. Hopefully he proves me wrong but I think this will be the year Holt begins to lose his prospect status and starts to settle in as organizational depth.
Gift Ngoepe: Ngoepe is an interesting case. He was the first black South African to sign a pro-baseball contract. At the time of his signing he garnered a lot of attention even being featured is a Sports Illustrated article. He is a very good defensive player and he runs extremely well. Last season he was beginning to show signs of his offensive game improving but an injury early in the year cut his season short. He is a candidate to be moved up to A+ but with missing so much time last year I see the Pirates having him repeat A+. Unless the Pirates are aggressive with a GCL player there is really no prospect to man SS in A ball so I am expecting to see Ngoepe get a lot of playing time there. I am expecting Ngoepe to keep improving his offensive game in 2012 and become a legit prospect for the Pirates.
Summary: The position for now and for the immediate future is Neil Walker. The Pirates do have some options that can fill in if necessary and even have a few intriguing prospects in the middle levels but I just don’t see any way that Walker does not remain here for the next few seasons. The position will basically succeed or fail with him this year but it is in good hands here. The Pirates have nothing to worry about here and appear set for the next few seasons. Should a prospect develop the Pirates could move them to another position or use them as trade bait.