Having previously touched on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ spring training competition for the starting second baseman, recent reports suggest the favorites are Nick Gonzales and Liover Peguero. Gonzales, 24, was the Pirates’ number-one pick in the 2020 June Amateur Draft. In three minor-league seasons, he’s slashed .284/.382/.506 with 39 HR and 140 RBIs. However, in two stints and 35 games with the Pirates in 2023, he hit just .209/.268/.348. He also strikes out at an unacceptable rate, 32.2 percent of his minor league at-bats and 31.3 percent of his major-league at-bats.
Peguero, 23, was acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for Starling Marte in 2020. It was the first trade by newly hired general manager Ben Cherington. At the time, Peguero was the seventh-rated prospect in the Arizona system. He was primarily a shortstop in the minors, but the Pirates have a budding superstar there in Oneil Cruz. In 2023 as a Pirate, Peguero was hitting .274 as late as September 3 before a slump leveled off his numbers to .237/.280/.374. Most surprising were his seven homers, many of which were no-doubters.
Why not Triolo?
Both Gonzales and Peguero field well at second. Ostensibly involved in the second base competition with them are multi-position players Ji Hwan Bae and Jared Triolo. Unfortunately for them, the Pirates brain trust views them as having more value as utility players rather than regulars. It makes sense in Bae’s case. He likely played himself out of the competition by not hitting or fielding well at second base in 2023. He looks much better suited for center field, where he made several highlight-reel catches. But why not Triolo?
In 54 games with the Pirates last season, Triolo hit .298/.388/.398 with 3 HR and 21 RBIs. From the start, he never looked overmatched. He went about his business as though he’s always belonged, as if he were playing with house money. He could improve upon his major-league 34.8 percent strike out rate. Other than that, there was little to dislike about his play, and his peripheral stats indicate there was more skill than luck involved in his offensive performance.
One criticism about his offense has been his inability to “impact the ball.” As M*A*S*H’s Colonel Potter would say, horse hockey! Yes, Triolo’s average exit velocity was 86.6 mph, just a few ticks below the 88.5 major-league average. Yes, his hard-hit rate was below average at 33.6. However, he more than compensated for both deficiencies with a well above-average 32.8 line-drive rate.
The 25-year-old was a consistent hitter throughout his Pirates stay as well. He was approximately equally as productive against right-handed pitchers (.301/.396/.390) as lefties (.293/.369/.414). Rather than peter out in September, when the minor-league season is usually over, he slashed .350/.458/.567 in September and October.
Triolo was primarily a third baseman in the minors before being groomed at other spots in the field. Playing every infield position but shortstop for the Pirates, he was worth nine Fielding Runs Above Average and five Defensive Runs Saved.
Furthermore, his minor-league record suggests his major-league performance was no fluke. Over four years in the minors, he’s hit .284/.370/.439 with 28 HR and 180 RBIs. Clearly, the on-base skills the Pirates covet are there. His strike-out rate of 22.9 percent indicates he can improve on that in the majors. He’s also been a threat on the bases, with 62 steals across those four seasons.
Major-league teams pay lip service to the notion that the best man in a spring training competition gets the job. However, we all know starting positions are generally handed out based on salary and pedigree. It’s Gonzales who was a first-round draft pick and Peguero who was acquired in a high-profile trade. Meanwhile, Triolo has been labeled as a utility player, and labels can be hard to shake in baseball. None of this is to suggest Triolo should be handed the job. The Pirates aren’t in any position to hand out scholarships. This is only to argue he should get as long a look as any other contenders.
A football analogy
In 1969, coach Chuck Noll took over a rag-tag Pittsburgh Steelers football team that had finished 2-11-1 the year before and 1-13 for his first season. In a few short years, he turned them into a team that won four Super Bowls in six seasons. I can’t locate the exact quote, but in explaining his approach in his first year, Noll said something to the effect of, I knew that in order to be successful, there were certain things we had to be able to do, and I was going to ask them to do those things, even though I knew they couldn’t.
Perhaps that’s where Cherington and manager Derek Shelton are going with this. They may think Gonzales or Peguero at his full potential, with Triolo as a versatility option, gives the Pirates the best shot at playing in the postseason in 2024 and beyond. Thus, they’ll try to squeeze that potential out of them. There’s an argument to be made there, of course. But sometimes one can outsmart oneself, too.
It will be interesting to see if Triolo can come up with a spring training season strong enough to kick that door in.