First Pitch: Where Will Josh Harrison Play When Neil Walker Returns?

The Pittsburgh Pirates are going to have a tough decision on their hands shortly. Neil Walker will be returning soon, which means the team will need to find a spot for Josh Harrison to get playing time.

Last month, I wrote about Harrison’s hot streak, and where he might find time once Gregory Polanco arrived. That question was put on hold when Walker went to the disabled list. Polanco came up to take Walker’s spot on the active roster, and Harrison got more playing time at second base in Walker’s absence.

Now the Pirates have a trio of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco in the outfield, and at the top of the order. That group is starting to demonstrate why they could be the best outfield in baseball in the not-too-distant future. When Walker returns, they’ll get a guy who has been one of the best hitters on the team this year. That leaves two spots available for Harrison.

The first spot is the shortstop position. Jordy Mercer has some poor numbers this season, although he’s showing improvements. Since reaching a season low .367 OPS on May 2nd, Mercer has been hitting well, with a .724 OPS in 138 plate appearances. He’s been better in June, with an .814 OPS. This success mirrors what Harrison has been doing, as his hot streak also started on May 3rd. Harrison has a better OPS in that stretch, with an .891 OPS overall, and a .945 OPS in June. Mercer has much better defense, which might make up for the ~150 point gap in OPS, and might be more important on a Pirates team that focuses so much on ground balls.

The second spot is third base. Pedro Alvarez has had some issues throwing this year, and had just a .712 OPS on the season, prior to tonight’s game. He’s been a hot and cold hitter in his career, which means Pirates fans are either talking about getting rid of him, or extending him, depending on what 2-3 week stretch we’re in. He also struggles against lefties, which is a key area where Harrison could get at-bats. However, that won’t provide many opportunities for Harrison.

Looking at the surface, this might not seem like a difficult decision. Harrison has 171 plate appearances this year, ranking seventh on the team. His OPS is better than everyone except Andrew McCutchen.

What makes this decision difficult is that we’re only talking about 171 plate appearances. The hot streak for Harrison amounts to less than two months. It’s not uncommon for a player to put up outstanding numbers in a month and a half during any given point in the season. That’s something that you hope will continue, while also being realistic that it might not continue.

It would be hard to put Harrison at shortstop with Mercer starting to hit, as this would result in a big drop in defensive value at a very important position. I wouldn’t expect that, since the Pirates look for defense first at shortstop. I don’t think I would remove Alvarez — the best power hitter on the team — from the lineup all because of less than two months of production from Harrison.

But Harrison needs playing time. He needs a chance to continue to show that this is legit. If it is legit, then you might start having serious conversations like “should Josh Harrison replace Pedro Alvarez at third base?” However, those conversations would need to wait until well after two months of success at the plate from Harrison.

I would still take the same approach with Harrison that I would have taken last month. Get him starts all over the field. Have him start at third against lefties. Have him get 2-3 other starts per week at shortstop, second base, third base, or the corner outfield spots. Force him into the lineup a bit more, but not to the point where you’re taking away too much time from guys who have historical numbers that say they’re more likely to be better. With 3-4 starts per week, plus pinch-hitting roles, Harrison should get close to regular playing time, just without a specific position.

It’s not a bad thing to have a strong hitter on the bench, capable of keeping everyone else on the team fresh with his occasional spot starts. That’s something the Pirates have been missing for a long time. But it’s harder to keep Harrison without a specific position when guys like Alvarez or Mercer have weaker overall numbers or go in a brief slump.

The Pirates will have a difficult decision to make. That decision gets more difficult the longer Harrison’s offensive hot streak continues.

Links and Notes

**2014 Pittsburgh Pirates Draft Pick Signing Tracker

**Prospect Watch: Kingham With Another Gem; Allie Hits 12th Homer

**Minor Moves: Pirates Release Cody Eppley

**Minor League Schedule: First Game For Bristol Pirates, Glasnow Goes For Bradenton

**Prospect Highlights: Strikeouts From Casey Sadler and A.J. Morris

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Bryan Graham

    I wish he could play first base for Davis.

    • Y2JGQ2

      Exactly! Just for the short-term, as long as Harrison is playing like this- you have to ride it out. Don’t play Pedro against lefties at all, sit him against righties where he doesn’t particularly match up well, (this would average to 2 games a week) get Pedro some starts at first and give Ike some days off against righties (1 start a week), give Neil 1 day off a week (1 start per week), and between filling in, in the outfield to give marte a day off when he’s not playing well or being a bonehead, or giving cutch a day off , 1-2 starts per week at short stop. (2 starts per week). That comes to 6 games a week, which is generally how many games per week you play.

    • FrankRestly

      Not sure how good it is, but Pedro throws a knuckleball. After watching Travis Snider strike out Joey Votto last night (about the only bright spot in that game), it makes me wonder if the Pirates are looking for some bull pen help from unexpected places.

      Tim Wakefield started off as an outfielder in the Pirates minor league system. He turned his knuckleball into a 19 year career.

      I personally think Harrison’s hot streak is partly a function of how he has been pitched. He has seen a pretty steady diet of fastballs and leads the majors in batting average against fast balls. Then look at how Pedro is pitched – lots of off speed and stuff down and away.

      Taking nothing away from Harrison and the good streak he has had, but I don’t think you throw Pedro under the bus at this point. If you look at his numbers from last year at this point and this year at this point, they are very similar:

      Last Year
      .214 Average
      11 Home Runs
      32 RBIs
      83 Strikeouts
      21 Walks
      .724 OPS

      This Year:
      .235 Average
      11 Home Runs
      35 RBIs
      69 Strikeouts
      31 Walks
      .718 OPS

      Last year Alavarez went on a tear from June 20 to June 28. 14 for 28, 5 HR’s, 10 RBI’s. The Pirates schedule doesn’t look favorable for that kind of performance coming up – Phillies, Tampa, Arizona all high ERA teams on the horizon but with several lefties set to match against:

      July 1: Wade Miley

      June 25: David Price

      That still leaves Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee as potential lefties to face during the Phillies series.

  • israelp

    Maybe Pedro can play first base.

    • FrankRestly

      Problem is that Pedro is a lefty bat, but a righty glove. Typically, you want your corner infielders with the glove side to the interior of the infield – which is why you see so many lefty first basemen.

  • Dom DiDominic

    Last time this was posted, I was in favor of just benching Harrison and turning up his starts in RF, LF, 2B & 3B. Since Walker has been out, there have been more changes than just Harrison playing 2B.
    Top of the lineup is set. If Harrison starts in the OF, the top of the lineup changes daily. Not sure if that is good, bad or that matters. Seems great for Marte at two.
    Harrison should always start v LHP. 2nd, 3rd or RF.
    V RHP it is tougher. One start at ss/week may be too much. 4 starts per week would be about right, which would now make him the #1 option off the bench.

  • csnumber23

    To me this is an easy decision. I play him at SS 3-4 times a week and 3rd 1-2 times a week. In the games he starts at SS I would insert Mercer or Barmes late with a lead and move Harrison to 3rd and get Pedro’s glove out of the game. Jordy Mercer is nothing but an average defensive SS so I don’t think the downgrade on defense is as much as people think. I would at least try this out and see how Josh’s glove looks at SS in an extended look. Imagine how good this lineup would be with Josh at SS. I just hope he can field enough at SS.

    • Y2JGQ2

      I really like this idea actually! along with him averaging a start a week between filling in for walker, or filling in for an outfield spot getting a day off, that’d get him 5 starts a week. You also don’t have to worry about Pedro getting a lefty put against him- fine you want to pitch to harrison instead, okay your funeral. and you still have sanchez off the bench too, so that whol “bring in a lefty thing”starts backfiring real quick on teams who want to pitch around alvarez’s power.

    • SteveW

      The downgrade from Mercer to Harrison, as Tim points out, is huge. What you might gain offensively – and it is far from certain if you’ll gain anything – you’ll lose defensively, and more. Let’s not forget that Josh has never had an OPS as high as .700 for a season and that Mercer’s OPS was .772 last year. Jordy’s OPS since May 31st this year is .843. He won’t hit that well for the rest of the season, but repeating the .772 is certainly possible. I doubt Josh will hit .772 from today forward.

  • Lee Young

    I have no problems with him splitting playing time with Pedro. Alvarez has become a liability at the plate and on the field. If not for his throwing errors, I would leave him at 3b, but he and Tony Sanchez appear to have ‘the yips’ bad.

    In fact, if we can trade him for something good, I’m in favor of doing it.

    • Y2JGQ2

      Eh- and committ long term to Harrison? Not yet- Omar Infante is a good utility player, and put up an extremely good year but he isn’t a long term answer and Harrison isn’t either, but i’m also not worried about Alvarez’s ego. Right now Harrison is better than Mercer or Alvarez- offensively and defensively combined- (i still don’t think its fair to say Harrison can’t play shortstop UNTIL he plays there and fails)

    • Doc

      Foo…. Come back. You are missed

  • Ron Loreski

    3rd base is the most logical spot for him right now. At least until Pedro cleans up his act.

  • bmcferren

    Why are first base and catcher out of the question for Harrison?

    • http://www.facebook.com/andy.prough.3 Andy Prough

      I heard we need a new closer…

  • DigitalDan

    Hey, I’ve got a question;

    Posted in article about the play at the plate yesterday: “Martin and Hurdle both seemed to have the impression that when
    Rule 7:13 was compiled hastily shortly before the start of this season, no distinction was spelled out between tag and force plays — on which the catcher must be on the plate.”

    Everyone knew that was a force play yesterday. But, the new rules evidently say that you still have to tag the player and give him a clear path to the plate. So, what if Martin gets the ball, a runner is 10 feet away and Martin sees he can get the runner out coming into 3rd base.

    Does Martin have to wait to tag the guy coming to the plate and miss any chance of a double play? Or, if he steps on the plate and throws to 3rd and nails the runner – is the guy coming to the plate safe because he wasn’t tagged?

    • leadoff

      I have seen every team in baseball play this year and the Pirates lead the world in calls like this, Martin, a couple of times this year, Sanchez also. The Reds catcher blocked the plate on Alvarez, but the call was not him blocking the plate, it was that Alvarez never got tagged. With the Pirates, the call comes second and the blocking comes first. I really believe the Pirates are getting the short end of the stick on most of these calls compared to other teams, I know this sounds like a homer, but I have seen to much baseball and know what other teams are getting away with.

  • leadoff

    Shows how strong the Pirate starting lineup really is when you can’t find a spot for a guy like Harrison, he starts on just about any other team in baseball without any discussion.
    Since this lineup is as strong as it is, the Pirates need to concentrate more on their weaknesses, which clearly are not the starting lineup, they don’t have any positions of real need. So it would seem to me that there are other problems that they need to address more than worrying about what to do with Harrison. Remember how the Cubs Bonifacio tore up baseball in the first few months, never had a position and still doesn’t, but has leveled off at his career average. Harrison does not have to play everyday, there will be lots of opportunities to get him work, Hurdle just has to be more aware that he can’t let him rust away on the bench like he is doing right now with Tabata and Snyder.
    My theory is, if you can’t play them once in a while, trade them.

  • bucsws2014

    Ike will look better once he slides down to six or seven in the order while Walker takes over the cleanup role.

    I’d start shopping Pedro now. He’s not a candidate for extension due to Boras. He’s got to be moved this year or next to get any value. Moving Pedro to 1b mid-season is not a sane option.

    Am I certain Josh is the answer? No. But every indicator this season suggests he’s for real. And if he regresses, it’s still not bad given what Pedro isn’t doing. Next year Walker can go to 3b while Hanson goes to 2b and Harrison can spell both.

    If I’m Neal, I’m talking to both the Yankees and Royals. The Yankees might be willing to deal a near-MLB ready pitcher who can make our rotation in 2015 and a SS prospect. The Royals would probably have to be more prospect-centered, but we could also take Moustakas off their hands to get a LH bench bat to replace Snider (assuming he goes) and some 3b insurance. So two prospects + Moustakas. Change of scenery might do him well. KC’s GM is under pressure to win and win now, and Pedro is a significant upgrade given Moustaskas’ issues this year.

    • wkkortas

      Like Branch Rickey once said about Ralph Kiner, the Pirates should be willing to be overwhelmed.

      • piratemike

        I’ve seen Ralph Kiner play and Pedro isn’t Ralph Kiner.
        Yes I’m that old.

    • Andrew

      Mike Moustakas is the equivalent of Clint Barmes at 3rd, the guy cannot hit.

      • bucsws2014

        So what? If taking moustakas is the cost of getting two guys you really do want, you make that deal and run away giddy.

        • Andrew

          I actually like the idea but find just find Mostakus revolting. I think trading Alvarez would works better in the off-season, if Walker has the arm for 3rd he could play there. He is a better career hitter than Alvarez and while a platoon would be ideal he can at least get on base against LHP. Would definitely need a middle infield prospect in return.

  • S Brooks

    Please don’t sell low on Alvarez. Even with his defensive struggles the guy is on track to be a league-average 3B, and those don’t grow on trees. And that’s even considering he hasn’t had one of his “locked in” streaks all year.

    Pedro is clearly taking a new plate approach, and I think it’s going to take a little while to put the components together. His K rate is way down, and he’s making more contact than ever before, it’s just that, unfortunately, he’s making it on pitches out of the zone, which is leading to more pop-ups, fewer line drives, and a lower HR/FB %. It’s an evolution, and Pedro has a reputation from back in his Vanderbilt days for his dedication to getting better. If he can bring himself to a point where he’s not offering at as many pitchers’ pitches, you’ll see him start to square up more balls, and the Pirates will have the guy they dreamed on when they drafted him, a .850+ OPS guy.

    Unless the return is a future #1 or #2 starter (because the Bucs have plenty of #3/4 guys on the way), it’s not worth making a deal. Let Harrison do his super-sub thing, pinch hit and be the first guy to plug in when there’s an injury. That’ll give him plenty of AB.

    • piratemike

      I’m not being sarcastic I am serious, if Pedro was available to the Bucs and you were the GM would you give up a Taillon or Glasnow for Pedro right now.

      • S Brooks

        Of course not, which is why you don’t trade Pedro at the low point of his value. The Pirates won’t get anything they really need.

        If you stick with him and he realizes his peak, which is probably an Adrian Beltre type, then you’ve got a really good asset that is more likely to bring in a future #2 in trade. But I would make that trade after the ’15 season.

        • piratemike

          Then why would another team offer a no.1 or 2 for Pedro?

          • S Brooks

            I can see you’re having trouble following the point of my post, which was – again – don’t trade Pedro at the trough of his value because the return will not be particularly useful. As in, most likely you’re NOT going to fetch what the Bucs really need, a future #1 or #2 starter.

            Long pause.

            THAT SAID, GMs have made – and continue to make – some head scratching moves. Dave Dombrowski traded a legit high #3/low #2 starter in Doug Fister for a utility infielder, a reliever, and a 22 year-old whose upside most considered to be…a future #3. I’m sure he had his reasons.

            Kevin Towers traded away Jarrod Parker for Craig Breslow and Trevor Cahill.

            So you never know when you might catch a GM at the right moment. Maybe he sees Alvarez as a breakout candidate like (assumedly) Dombrowski saw Ray.

            But that’s not the point. The point is, don’t sell on Pedro at the low point of his value.

  • SportOMania

    I would like to know if Harrison would be open to an extension. Super utility guys are great assets to have.

  • bucsws2014

    Just wanted to add, Brock Holt has 150+ ABs for Boston, playing five positions. Has an .800+ OPS (though declining). Made an amazing catch this week as CF after LF lost ball in lights. So its not just Josh. Maybe dome og these “utility” guys really are good.

  • mysonisnamedafterRoberto

    …and that is why Hurdle makes the big bucks.

    Can Harrison pitch?

  • smurph

    I agree with the majority here. You find a way to get Josh in the lineup 5 or 6 games a week. Sit Pedro against LHP. Give the other position players an occassional day off. The real question is who do you remove from the 25 man roster. I would expect either Snider or Tabata or Barmes to come up with an “injury” within the next few days.

  • William Maloni

    Trade Pedro/Snyder and play Harrison at Third, unless you get some young 3B in return.

  • https://www.facebook.com/kevin.obringer Kevin Obringer

    Any thoughts on moving Alvarez to 1st and Harrison to 3rd, or Walker to 1st and Harrison to 2nd? It seems that we need Mercer at short to field. It’s become more clear that Alvarez isn’t improving in the field, and perhaps even getting worse, though he showed some improvement last year at times. And the team would be much better with Ike Davis’s bat out of the lineup, opposed to Alvarez or Harrison. Of course it would be a difficult transition to move one of the two players over to 1st base, but sometimes you “need to throw sh*t at the wall and see what sticks”.