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Pirates' Newman forging hitting identity

Bucs first-rounder plans show off impressive tool in first full season
March 9, 2016

BRADENTON, Florida -- Kevin Newman is the prospect version of an ink blot test. Everybody could tell you what is physically there. But when asked to interpret that data, well, that's when you get as many different opinions as the number of people you've asked.

Here's what everybody agrees on.

Newman has the potential to hit for a high average. At the University of Arizona, he batted .337 over three seasons, capped by a .370 average in his final season as a junior in 2015. He scored two hitting titles in the renowned wooden-bat Cape Cod League. What's more, he doesn't strike out, fanning in just 15 of his 227 collegiate at-bats in 2015. He's also got above-average speed, as evidenced by his 22 steals last season with the Wildcats. On the defensive end, he's a good shortstop who should be able to handle the position in his first couple seasons as a pro. Here's what he doesn't have -- a lot of power. Newman, who hits from the right side, smacked only two homers in his NCAA career, both in his final campaign. 

That's his profile, and it's fairly cut and dry. It's a little like that of Reds' No. 5 prospect Jose Peraza, with the bonus of being a shortstop and the negative of less speed. 

The Pirates liked the profile enough to make Newman the 19th overall pick in last year's Draft and signed him to a reported $2.175 million bonus, just a little less than $100,000 below the slot money for that pick. Nine months later, they still like him just as much.

"I think he's a very solid defensive player at shortstop," said Pirates director of Minor League operations Larry Broadway. "He moves around. He's got explosive feet, good arm strength. Plus he's got a head on his shoulders. There's game awareness, baseball IQ. From a defensive standpoint, he's going to stay at shortstop for us and be a good shortstop.

"Offensively, he's more gap-to-gap. He's got a good feel for the strike zone, got a good ability to put the barrell on it. And he's got some run tool in there to be able to steal some bases, go first to third, create havoc and create favorable situations for the guys behind him."

Newman hit .257/.318/.350 with two homers over 61 games last year at Class A Short Season and Class A ball, but saw much rosier numbers (.306/.376/.367) at the higher level once he got over the layoff from the end of the collegiate season to the beginning of his pro one.

However, even with the improvement, the prospect community was split on his potential future value this offseason. MLB Pipeline pegs him as the Pirates' No. 11 prospect, four spots behind third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes, who was taken 13 spots after Newman in the 2015 Draft. Baseball America isn't as down on Newman, placing him at No. 8. Baseball Prospectus, on the other hand, has him all the way up at No. 4, behind only Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Jameson Taillon. ESPN's Keith Law went as far as to rank him in his top 25 among all prospects.

It's Newman's limitations, namely his penchant to aim for hits over swinging for the fences, that cause such a wide range of viewpoints, and they're limitations Newman acknowledges but hopes can be strengths as well.

"I have a really short approach," he said. "I don't really try to crush the ball, hence I don't really have the power numbers. But I really just try to hit line drives, make the defense work, always stay within myself. I never want to give up at-bats because the wind is going out and I want to try go deep there and then I roll over the ball. That's just how I've been. Making the pitcher beat you, instead of getting yourself out.

"Obviously, it doesn't always work out like that. But having a mentality like that, you get 0-2 knocks here and there, and those go a long way."

That's not to say Newman hasn't tried to add a little power over his first professional offseason. The former Wildcat went back to the University of Arizona this winter to focus on strength training and ended up adding close to 20 pounds, by his measure.

"I ended the season at 173 and came in at 195, 198," he said. "I'm looking to hold that. ... I don't feel it, though. I still feel quick. I think my range is the same. It's all good. It's not like I was sitting there drinking beer all offseason to get the weight up."

The goal is not just trying to add a couple dingers to the resume, though. Newman added he expects to lose 10 of those pounds over the course of his first full season, which Broadway said would start at Class A Advanced Bradenton. He's hoping that'll help him take on the rigors of a 144-game Minor League season after years spent playing 55 in college and a couple extra dozen in summer ball.

For their part, the Pirates have always believed Newman will be fine, whether the power becomes a notable tool or not.

"There could be some power there," Broadway said. "We think there's some impact. But his strength is keeping the ball in the big part of the field, gap to gap. He can drive the ball. There's not a ton of home run look right now. But that comes later with the quality of pitching, the discipline of the approach. ... He's got enough raw power to hit some home runs, but I wouldn't say that's his strength right now or his approach."

Whatever happens, if Newman can hit above .300 while sticking at shortstop and adding around 20 steals a season at every step of the Pirates ladder, he should make for a valuable asset in a system known for churning out a few over the last decade. For some, the continuation of that profile alone will make for a beautiful ink blot on its own.

"I'm not trying to change my swing to add power, but the extra weight will just add some without changing my mentality or approach," Newman said. "I'm still not trying to hit 25 bombs. I'm trying to be myself."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.