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Should Josh Rodriguez start at shortstop?

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Some Pirates fans were surprised this spring when Josh Rodriguez beat out Pedro Ciriaco for a roster spot, claiming the club's backup middle infielder role. Part of the reason Rodriguez won out was roster flexibility.

Ciriaco has minor league options remaining, while Rodriguez, a Rule 5 draft pick, must stick with the major league club all year or be offered back to the Cleveland Indians for half of the $50,000 price the Bucs paid to select him.

But there's another reason why Rodriguez is in manager Clint Hurdle's clubhouse -- he just may be the Bucs' best option to start at shortstop.

Hurdle has stuck with incumbent Ronny Cedeno so far, despite the enigmatic shortstop's defensive lapses and continued hacking at the plate. While Baseball America once ranked Cedeno as a top 100 prospect, that was back in 2006 -- a lifetime ago in a player's career. Today, he's the owner of a .244 average, a .283 on-base percentage and a .353 slugging percentage in nearly 1,900 career plate appearances in the majors.

At 28, Cedeno is hardly old. But he's in the age range where most players stop showing marked improvement in their skills. In all likelihood, what you see right now from Cedeno is what you get -- and what you see is an out-making machine.

Rodriguez, meanwhile, offers more promise at the plate. The 26-year-old, selected by the Indians out of Rice in the second round of the 2006 amateur draft, has displayed a good eye and doubles power in the minors. Rodriguez batted .293/.372/.486 in the Triple-A International League in 2010.

Rodriguez's ability to get on base makes him an offensive upgrade over the free-swinging Cedeno. According to ZiPS, a major league projection system developed by sabermatrician Dan Szymborski, Rodriguez is forecast for a .251 average, a .322 on-base percentage and a .376 slugging percentage in 2011. Cedeno's projection calls for a similar average (.249) and slugging percentage (.376), but his allergy to walks means his OBP is pegged at a paltry .290.

If Rodriguez meets that ZiPS projection while logging 500 plate appearances with the Pirates, his offensive performance would be about seven runs worse than an average major league hitter. Cedeno's woeful projection would make him about 14 runs below average in 500 plate appearances.

Can Cedeno make up that seven run gap on defense? It's doubtful. Ultimate Zone Rating, a defensive metric that measures how many runs above or below average a player is compared to his peers at the same position, shows that Cedeno has been about four runs worse than the average shortstop per 150 defensive games during his big league career.

Granted, there are no advanced defensive stats for Rodriguez with which we can make a comparison to Cedeno. And in the 2011 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America suggested that Rodriguez might be stretched at shortstop -- he's got a strong arm and decent range, but his reads off the bat need work.

Still, it's not like Cedeno is slick fielder. Given Rodriguez's advantage with the lumber, the Rule 5 pick would have to show the same range as Honus Wagner's statue not to be the better option as the Pirates' starting shortstop.

Rodriguez might be a long-term utility man, but he looks good compared to a guy who far too often trots back to the dugout after lunging at a junk pitch. Waiting for Cedeno to make good on his former prospect status doesn't figure to pay off for the Pirates -- 2006 was a long time ago.

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