Today we wrote about how Alen Hanson was moved to second base by the Pirates. Hanson has played second base before in the lower levels, but hasn’t been at the position for the last few years, and hasn’t been there in Altoona. He made his first start there tonight. One of the issues he was having at shortstop were defensive lapses, where he would make errors on routine plays.
Hanson had a throwing error in his first game at second base, although reviewing the play, it probably shouldn’t have been an error. The ball was hit up the middle, and Hanson ranged to his right, made a backhanded stop, turned and jumped to make the throw, with his momentum carrying him away from first, and the throw just pulled Stetson Allie off the bag. A guy with less range lets the play go through for a single. If Hanson holds on to the ball, and lets his momentum carry him away, it goes for a single. If Hanson doesn’t rush the throw, he’s got no shot at the runner, and it goes for a single. I might one day write an article about how I hate the error process in minor league baseball, but that’s not what this is about tonight.
The move to second base for Hanson is a big one, because it pretty much signals that the Pirates are moving on from him at shortstop. In the article linked above, Larry Broadway says that he could return to the shortstop position in the future. But Hanson needs work at shortstop if he’s going to be a shortstop, which is why the move looks to be more than adding versatility.
The move could also signal a few things about the Pirates’ plans for the infield in the future.
Jordy Mercer and the Shortstop Position
The interesting thing about Hanson moving is that the “versatility” line was used with Jordy Mercer when he moved off shortstop in the minor leagues. However, Mercer had better defense at the position, and was moving off for a prospect the Pirates felt at the time could be a starter in the majors — Chase d’Arnaud. Now, Mercer is back and playing as the starting shortstop in Pittsburgh.
I don’t see that changing anytime soon. When Mercer was struggling offensively earlier in the season, Neal Huntington praised his defensive improvements. That wasn’t just praising the one part of his game that was working. It was praising the one part of the game that the Pirates value most from the shortstop position. Mercer doesn’t have elite defense, but he’s showing improvements this year, and if that continues he could have a lot of value at the position. His offense has picked up since the start of June, looking more like what we saw in 2013.
The combination of Mercer’s improved defense, and his bat getting back to looking like the 2013 version, means he’s not likely to go anywhere. If the Pirates had questions about the future of their shortstop position, then I don’t see them moving Hanson to second base. I think it’s easier to make the switch with Hanson if Mercer is doing well. I’ve envisioned the future of the middle infield with these two guys, and the only question mark has been about who will play at shortstop. At this point, Mercer’s defense is what you’d hope for out of Hanson, meaning there isn’t any value getting Hanson work at the position.
Neil Walker’s Future With the Pirates
If Hanson is the future at second base, then what does this mean for Neil Walker? The immediate reaction I got when the news came out today was “Bye Bye Neil.” I don’t think Walker is going anywhere yet. The Pirates still have him under control for two more seasons beyond the 2014 season. His hitting has been much better this year, with an increase in his power numbers. That increase continues an upward trend from the last four years. He saw a drop off in his walks, but also a drop in his strikeouts, and he’s hitting for a better average than last year. Defensively, he is struggling this season, after showing improvements in previous years.
Walker is making $5.8 M this year. He will probably get about $7.5-8 M in arbitration next year, and he could receive close to $10 M in his fourth year in 2016. I think the Pirates will keep him for the 2015 season, although I don’t think there are any guarantees after that. The 2016 season will be Walker’s age 30 season, which is when most players start their decline. It’s also possible that Hanson’s bat could put him on the fast track at second base, putting him in the majors by the middle of next season.
I don’t think Walker has a future with the Pirates at second base, at least not in 2016 and beyond. But what about another position?
A Possible Infield Shuffle?
If there’s one player who has struggled defensively this year, it has been Pedro Alvarez. He recorded another throwing error tonight, and the Pirates are losing faith in him at third base. Unfortunately, they have no good internal solution at third base. Josh Harrison could be one option, although I don’t think we’ve seen enough from him this year to say he can be an everyday third baseman. Harrison had 575 plate appearances prior to this year saying he was barely a bench option. This year he has 325 plate appearances saying he’s good enough to be a regular third baseman. I don’t think we’ve reached a sample size big enough to say which group of plate appearances is correct.
Walker started his career at catcher, then moved to third base for a few years. He moved to second base to reach the majors in 2009, with Alvarez on pace at the time to be the third baseman of the future, and making the jump to the majors a year later. So after five years away from the position, could Walker move back to third?
While he’s having a good year at the plate this year, Walker’s career OPS is .769. That would rank 12th of 24 qualified third basemen this year. Walker’s bat plays much better at second base than at third. If he could post strong defense at the third base position, then he would provide good enough value to be a starter, even if the bat doesn’t look like it belongs at third base.
I don’t think the Pirates will shuffle their infield around this season. It would probably be a better idea to put Harrison at third base if they want to replace Alvarez, rather than moving Walker over in the middle of the season. Then again, Walker might be fine moving back to third base immediately, which still leaves the question of who will play second (I don’t think Hanson would be ready to make the jump from Double-A).
I could see the Pirates exploring Walker to third base in the off-season, and adjusting the infield accordingly. That could mean Pedro Alvarez moving over to first base, or it could mean a trade. If second base is left without a long-term option, that could leave the position open for Hanson to take over by mid-season, if not earlier.
The formation of the infield will probably be a big topic this off-season, assuming it’s not addressed in-season with a long-term solution. For now, it looks like the future middle infield is set with Jordy Mercer at shortstop and Alen Hanson at second base.
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