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.
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