2014 Recaps: Is Josh Harrison the Future at Third Base For the Pirates?

For the past few years, the third base recap has been a countdown to nothing. More specifically, it has been a countdown to when Pedro Alvarez would leave the Pittsburgh Pirates, at which point the Pirates had no internal replacements. After the 2014 season, the Pirates are now in a situation where they not only have a replacement at third base for Alvarez, but also could deal Alvarez two years before he’s eligible for free agency.

The 2014 season started with Alvarez at third base. However, he eventually fell out of favor. He experienced what could be described as a case of the yips, with 25 errors, and most of those being throwing errors. Many of the throwing errors came on routine plays.

Alvarez has dealt with errors throughout his career. He had 27 errors in each of the last two seasons, although that came in 1328 innings and 1273 innings. This year he had 25 in 823 innings, which is a more alarming rate. The previous two years could have been overlooked because of his offense, with a combined .777 OPS. The offense didn’t make up for the errors this year, with a .717 OPS.

The replacement for Alvarez came from one of the most unlikely places. Josh Harrison entered the season with a combined .648 OPS in 575 plate appearances. At the start of the season, he wasn’t even considered a great option for the bench. But struggles from Travis Snider in right field allowed Harrison the chance for more playing time, and to break out early in the season.

The struggles from Alvarez continued, and Harrison continued his breakout. By the end of June, Harrison was getting time at third base. He was getting more starts at the position by the end of July. And by the second week of August, he was the new third baseman.

Harrison ended up being everything you’d want from a third baseman. He had an .837 OPS this year, while also providing strong defense. The combination led him to post the fifth best WAR out of 24 qualified third baseman in baseball this year. He was the second best third baseman in the National League, behind Anthony Rendon.

Alvarez hit a lot of home runs in 2012-13, but even with all of that power, his offense wasn’t as good as Harrison’s in 2014. His defense couldn’t come close to the defense that Harrison put up this year. As a result, the Pirates might have found their third baseman of the future.

The Future

There are two words of caution with Harrison. First, there’s the fact that Harrison has more plate appearances where he looked like a bench player (575) versus plate appearances where he looked like a star player (550). To expect him to only be like his 2014 self going forward is too optimistic. I think the defense can be expected, but the expectations for the offense should be tempered.

As for long-term expectations, Harrison is only under team control for the next three seasons. That’s one more season than Alvarez. So the idea that third base is solved for the long-term isn’t exactly fitting, since the Pirates are basically in the same situation as they were in before, just with an extra year to find a long-term replacement.

Harrison seems more likely to be an extension candidate, or a guy who could return to Pittsburgh as a free agent. Alvarez is a Scott Boras client, and those guys usually go to free agency right away, and don’t do pre-FA extensions. So the Pirates might be able to keep Harrison around for longer than the next three years, allowing them more time to develop someone from within.

That development still isn’t going well. Last year I suggested that they could move Wyatt Mathisen to third base, and that’s something they did in the Spring. But to call Mathisen the third baseman of the future is way too premature, since he had just a .704 OPS in Low-A, and has only spent one season at the position.

Mathisen is the only third base option in the minor league system right now. Dan Gamache and Eric Wood both look like bench options, if they make the majors. Chase Simpson had a good season in the NYPL, but it’s too early to tell if he can hit at the upper levels, or even stick at third base at all.

The idea of Neil Walker playing third base gets brought up a lot, although it doesn’t look like a good idea. For one, Walker hasn’t played the position in years, and there’s no telling whether he would be good defensively at the spot at this point in his career. Harrison has already shown good defense at the position, even when he wasn’t hitting. There’s also the fact that Walker is making a lot of money due to being paid like an above average second baseman. As a third baseman, even with good defense, he would be average at best, and ultimately over-paid for his production at another position.

It’s too soon to say whether Harrison will work out and will remain the best option the Pirates have. After the 2014 season that he had, there’s no way that the Pirates can’t give him a shot. When you become the fifth most valuable third baseman in the league, it buys you a chance to prove that those results weren’t a fluke.

  • Squeeze another year of Ben Zobrist-y use out of him. Bounce around to give guys rests and to get platoon advantages. Fill in longer term when guys are injured. His versatility would be a shame to waste by penciling him into third

  • Jacoby Jones could be the eventual 3B instead of SS? His bat would play well there.

  • Short answer… Harrison is the Pirates 3B, and will not be uprooted. Defensively, he is cat-like, which is a huge asset for a 3B. The only reason I personally lament his being constantly at 3B is he’s a sensational OF.

    While I agree it may be much to expect him to repeat his performance at the plate, he had progressed each season there as a bench player. He had some key hits, and even some dingers, as the 2013 season progressed. I remember the first time I saw him — and it was his first game when he was inserted at 3B in a doubleheader in Washington — and observed pitchers could knock the bats out of his hands. The encouraging thing that shows me his emergence at the plate is real is he’s not pulling balls out of the ballpark. His HRs go to the RF power alley. That ball explodes off his bat the other way. He still has room to improve power numbers if he starts pulling the ball some.

    He’s small, he barely made the team out of spring training as a bench option. However, I”m not going to underestimate what he can do with his athletic ability. I see a “freak” athlete in this guy.

  • KISS,keep it simple stupid. In other words yes harrison is the answer at third for the time being. Ship pedro off to texas for one of their many third base prospects and whatever else the pirates can get.

  • I’ll ask this again, but why wasn’t Josh Bell tried at 3rd and moved to 1st?. He seemed athletic enough and seemed to have a above average arm to handle 3rd or am i just wrong? Seems a waste to waste him at 1st.

    • Well he surely isnt a waste at 1st, but moving him to 3rd would be teaching him to handle a lot for a kid with no experience. 1B is much easier to handle and allows him to use his good power and bat. It’d also likely slow down his timetable, since they will want him getting at least 1-2 years at 3rd to get comfortable. At 1st, they can keep him on his current pace and have him ready with ease.

      • Short term i agree 1st will be easier for Bell. But if he really is our corner infielder of the future, to go along Marte, Polanco, Hansen etc., long term I’d want to use him at 3rd where his athleticism (not his bat ofcourse) is less wasted.
        Of course he could be a terrible 3rd baseman candidate, so someone who’s seen him often please tell me if I’m talking nonsense^^.

        • It’s impossible to removed from the infield for so long or never to have played there and develop the skills needed to play third. Even at first, it’s going to be really difficult. Everyone thinks anyone can learn first base because you are expected to just catch the ball or something. There’s a lot that goes on over there (i.e. cuts/relays, holding runners, lefties smashing balls at you that you barely see, footwork/tags around the bag, etc.). And this is coming from a guy who grew up a SS, moved to OF, and back to 1B.

  • Just my random thought. Pedro to Toronto (and someone like Heredia) for Adam Lind and Mitch Nay. Pirates get two years of a righty crushing 1b-man, a 3B prospect who should be in AA at some point this season. Toronto gets three years of Alvarez. They take the bigger risk, but…if they can straighten him out…the can get a 35+ HR 3B-man, a first round pick when he bolts via free agency, and decent ceiling/high risk guy like Heredia.

  • My thoughts: (Remember, I am just a clueless fan.)
    1) Pedro is not done. Could he be a comeback player of the year? Maybe not.
    2) Teams will figure out how to pitch Harrison. OPS will drop but he can still be a starter at some position.
    3) Walker’s injuries worry me. We need a dependable backup.
    4) I’m clueless on what to do at 1st base.
    5) Lambo. Where did the power go when he was move up to MLB?
    6) Pirates need to trade a A or AA top quality player for a A-AA future starter at 3rd base.
    7) I know even less about pitching. I do know I like watching Volquez pitch.

    Have a great day…. Well as good of a day as possible without turning on Root Sports to watch the Pirates.

    • Volquez has some nasty stuff doesn’t he.. lol

      • Yeah, so nasty that his strikeout rate rivals Jeff Locke’s!

        • Strike outs are great. There just not what the buccos focus on.. prefering to go deep into the game in 100 pitches.. three pitches or less my friend

          • Yeah you’re right. He must only throw “nasty stuff” early in the count. Pirates would probably much rather depend on BABIP than strikeouts I’d guess.

    • Allow me to take a look at this (I’m just another clueless fan lol):
      1) Pedro will spend the winter and spring learning 1B. I think when he gets comfortable with what he’s doing in the field, his hitting will pick up. He was better in August and September (although we’ve seen that before).
      2) Harrison’s opposite field power makes me think he’s tougher to pitch to than figuring him out. He such a good athlete, and has such quick hands, he can adjust his swing to react where the ball is pitched.
      3) I totally agree.
      4) & 5) I’ll take these in a pair. I don’t know what to do with Lambo. Although his power did not follow him on his call-up, he certainly was able to get on-base and drive in some runs — which is something we certainly have not seen with his other cups of coffee. I’m a lot more hopeful with him than I was earlier. Now, how he and Pedro factor in if somehow they both do well… I don’t know. I don’t know how either would do in non-platoon situations… they will do well as the LH platoon bats… but I have no idea what to do with the RH bat in the platoon. I think Gaby Sanchez has been a failure with the bat.
      6) Bell is not going anywhere. He’s what the Bucs are looking for long-term at 1B… and as a switch-hitter would moot all these 1B issues. I did not realize until I read an article about Bell’s transition to 1B that the last everyday 1B the Bucs have had was Adam LaRoche. But they undoubtedly need to get a future player to develop at 3B.
      7) I know there are questions as to whether the Bucs re-sign Liriano and/or Volquez. I’m hoping like heck Taillon’s Tommy John surgery leaves him well. I’ve seen the kid tweeting, and he certainly has a great attitude and heart. He would help along with a healthy Cole and Morton. Hopefully we re-sign one or both Liriano and/or Volquez and have Worley, Cumpton, and a number of others compete for the other rotation spot. Who knows if and whom Searage and company may try to rehabilitate off the scrap heap. It was impressive what they’ve done with Liriano. But this past season, it was magic doing what they did with Volquez and Worley.

      • Hope you did not miss my point in #6. I don’t want Bell going anywhere, but I think we are going to have to give up some other talented younger player somewhere in A or AA to get a potential mlb 3rd baseman for 2-4 years down the road. I think 3rd base in the minors is a little weak (probably because we assumed we would have Alvarez there for several more years) until you get to low A and I don’t think there is a guaranteed mlb player there. I think a trade now may be necessary to fill the spot in the future. Tim may disagree. Maybe he can comment.

  • What happens when Harrison gets hurt? or Walker gets hurt? Or Polanco doesn’t play well?

    Pulling Toro back from first base to third is recipe for distaster.

    We need to acquire someone who can play third base and more.

    Cuddyer, JoeyBats, or Headley would sure this up and we can afford each of them when Martin leaves

    • Joey bats? Heck if we are into pie in the sky lets see if the Cards will trade us Carpenter for a few minor leaguers. The Bucs are not going to carry 10-15 million dollar on bench player or a player thats not performed as well as a guy we have for 1/10 the price. I agree we need a good utility player but these guys are going to get big paydays and the Bucs would never pay them what they can get. Not sue who we can get on the cheap but it would be nice to get a solid utility guy .

      • The way I see it, Hurdle values flexibility – and Huntington is about to extend a $15 QO on Martin who played 3b, RF, 1b, and C for us

        Bautista can play 3B, 1B, and Right Field

        So when either Harrison, Polanco, or Toro either flake out, can’t hit a lefty starter, or get hurt, then Bautista will be playing that position and hitting cleanup behind Cutch. It is one of those guys who will probably be the expensive bench guy, not Bautista.

        Bautista would cost us Hanson, Kingham, and Snyder – three pieces we can spare – – – especially if we resign Harrison and Walker to a team friendly deal. Toronto has close to zero prospects and would jump on this deal

        • Did someone in Toronto tell you this? They aren’t trading for Snider, who they traded to us, unless you mean someone else named Snyder. Not nearly enough for one of the top sluggers in the AL. But your trade proposals rarely take things like payroll, positions, or logic into account.

        • Fire up the Trade O Magic buddy ! But the Jays might not be too happy with getting SNIDER back in a trade for Jose Bautista.

        • While we are at it lets get Trout from the Angels and Kershaw from the Dodgers

      • Is it possible they’ll give Chase D’Arnaud a look at infield utility? Jordy buried him at SS, and Hansen will, too. I’m wondering if at some point Jordy — who is still developing — might be able to move to 3B when Hansen is ready… and if Harrison is no longer an option. I’m on a tangent there… but at some point it seems the Bucs need to fish or cut bait with Chase.

  • “There’s also the fact that Walker is making a lot of money due to being paid like an above average second baseman. As a third baseman, even with good defense, he would be average at best, and ultimately over-paid for his production at another position.”

    This makes no sense to me. I’m not sure if the D would be better off overall with Walker at 2nd or 3rd but if it is going to prevent more runs with Harrison at 2nd and Walker at 3rd then who cares about the contract? You’re paying him either way. The same with saying Walker’s offense doesn’t play as well at 3rd. Who cares… you’ve got the players you’ve got at the moment so put them in the best place for them to succeed and don’t get wrapped into stereotypes.

    • I have issues with this logic as well, as it seems counter-intuitive relative to the arbitration process. Walker stands to make more via arbitration as a near-elite 2B than he would as an average 3B. In the former case, his comparables are guys like Pedroia, Phillips and Utley, whose first extensions all bought out final arbitration/early free agent years at $12-$15M. In the latter, it’s closer to the Pablo Sandoval/Chase Headley territory (~$10M).

      Now most of the damage is already done – Walker is going to get close to $10M already based on his production and service time, and the panel wouldn’t likely give much consideration to a pending position change for the 2015 award.

      But for Walker’s final trip through arb in 2016, it would seem to me that the Pirates could save a million or two following a switch to 3B, and assuming his production is roughly league average at the position. That is, to the extent that it would have an impact on his salary award at all.

      • However you slice it Harrison and Walker should off-set each other. My point is simply if they think they can save 10 runs defensively by having Walker at 3rd and Josh at 2nd then you make the move. I don’t really care about prototypical 3rd base production… they’re hitting in the same spot in the lineup. It’s just a different position next to their name. Put the lineup out there that will save the most runs.

        • I personally agree with this logic.. but if the defense would have been better wouldn’t they have done it last year.. maybe cause it was midseason when they realized josh was actually the everyday 3b

  • I don’t like the idea going into the season with some combination of Harrison/Alvarez penciled in at third base. I don’t think it’s likely, but what if Harrison turns back into a pumpkin? What if Pedro doesn’t overcome the yips? Now we’ve got a major hole at both corner infield positions.
    Either get a third baseman (Chase Headley, like I said somewhere else) or another second baseman and bump Walker to first. Dump Ike and Gabby and maybe even Pedro.

    • Headley’s offense was worse than Pedro’s this year and his time in SD early this year is worse than Harrison’s career line.

      Doesn’t seem like you’re changing the risk factor much there.

      • maybe Headley starts the year on the bench – you can’t deny Headley’s defense though…

      • Not to be argumentative but:

        2014:
        Alvarez — .231 avg, .312 obp, .405 slg., .717 ops, 102 ops+
        Headley -.243 avg., .328 obp., .355 slg., .700 ops, 102 ops+

        Offensively, they’re almost the same player, they just get there differently.
        Defensively, Headley is worlds above Alvarez.

        Also, love me some JHay, but which is real, the one from his first 500 at bats, or the second 500?

        One way to make up for the anticipated loss of Martin is to improve the infield defense. First, second and third base (except for Harrison) were defensive black holes in 2014.

        • Is jhay’s glove a huge improvement over walker at 2b.. I have no idea

          • He’s a significant improvement, on the order of a couple wins.

          • Walker’s problem is not his glove, it’s his range. Harrison would certainly get to balls that Walker wouldn’t dream about.
            You’ve got to look at the infield as a unit.

            If you’re trying to get more ground balls, which infield would you prefer: Headley, Mercer, Harrison and Walker; or Harrison, Mercer, Walker and take your pick of Alvarez, Davis, Sanchez or Lambo.

    • Don’t worry…….Alvarez is NOT going to be “penciled in” at 3B going into next season haha, so you won’t have to fret about that at least. More likely he’s penciled in to a trade, likelier still to an AL team.

    • Did you ever consider that Harrison wasn’t a ” pumpkin ” to begin with ?

    • I’ve been a proponent of getting Headley for 2015 and beyond for the past year. The beautiful thing about Headley is that he’d probably just take a 1 year deal now. 1 year, 10 mil probably gets it done.

  • Josh is certainly more than viable at 3b. His defense is more than adequate. He hits enough XBH where he doesn’t have to pop a ton of HRs to generate an .800+ OPS. And maybe what I really liked about him last year is that you can’t really “safely” pitch to him. For a short guy he can barrel a ball almost anywhere you pitch to him, a la Sandoval.

    That said, if the Bucs could make a deal for an ever better defensive 3b with more power (and assuming that’s not going to be Pedro), then I think the Bucs should do that, move Josh to 2b and Walker to 1b.

    • There’s also the issue with the three years of being a below average bench player. So no one should be 100% positive he’s going to stay as good as his 3/4 of a season he put together last year. Realistically, he’s somewhere in between previous years and last year, which I’m okay with given his defense is still above average.

  • I guess the question that I have is: Is Alvarez truly finished at 3rd base?

    It’s certainly a very perplexing problem. It seems that his fielding and footwork has been getting better as he has become more experienced at third over his career, but obviously the throwing issues of last year are huge.

    And it isn’t for a lack of trying. I can say with firsthand experience of being in the stadium many hours before the game, that over the last few years, Pedro is almost always the first guy out on the field, sometimes long before any of the other players. He is always working on his fielding and throwing. I know that he gets a bad rap since he’s not emotional on the field, so people often mistake that for a lack of caring and call him “lazy”.

    The guy is busting his butt every single day, but is the throwing issue solvable?? I have to wonder.

    • I don’t think anybody these days believes that Alvarez is not working hard. The fact that he does not throw a tantrum every time he screws up is professional, most of the fielders show very little emotion when they screw up. Most people are mad because they know it is in his head, not physically and they can’t figure out why he can’t figure it out.

      • I think most people are mad because they realize he will never be good at third. We act like his struggles at third just started this year. In reality he has lead 3b in errors the last three years by a wide margin. His throwing has never been good but his defense has been below average at best. He trys hard but he just isn’t good. Last year he was just plain horrible. I think Harrison has a good chance of being really productive based on his historical minor league numbers. I would not expect him to hit like he did last year (he almost led the league in hitting) but I think you could expect a three hundred hitter with good speed great hustle and decent defense. I think the only real area of concern in the starting line up should be at 1b (if we can somehow resign Martin). I would also like to see our bench improve because if I have to see Brett Morel play another inning for the Bucs I think I will throw up.

        • I actually think even with the errors pedro ranked 13th on percent of ground balls turned into outs.. not sure if that makes him at least average or not? The errors lead to an extra base

      • Its a real good thing most of those so called ” fans ” you mention leadoff, weren’t around or much too young when Steve Blass went the same route. I felt really bad for him at that time. Like Tom Weaver alluded too on one occasion, when a reporter told him his post game icing was all in his head, Seaver came back with : ” that’s the worst place to get it “!

  • Move Harrison to 2nd base, Walker to 1st, move the rest of the so called first basemen out of town and you have only 1 problem instead of 2. It should not be hard to find a solid 3rd basemen, they don’t need an all-star, just someone solid at 3rd.

    • If you’re going to do that, why not just put Harrison at 1st and leave Walker at 2nd? Seems Harrison is a guy who has the least amount of problems adjusting to new positions. I know that Harrison would not be the prototypical first baseman, but if they are both going to be in the line-up anyway, then I don’t see the need to make both guys learn a new position.

      Hopefully, we’ll be seeing Hanson and Bell at 2nd & 1st in the future….

      • Besides, I’d love to see a 5’8″ first baseman!!!

        • Actually, Matt Stairs isn’t much taller and he played a good bit of first. Plus Steve Garvey was pretty small too, wasn’t he??

      • lonleylibertarian
        October 23, 2014 12:18 am

        Problem is Walker is not a very good defensive 2nd baseman. He has made the play hit at him in the past – but this year dropped to -2 DRS – down from +9. His range is not very good – and he seldom makes the difficult play. Since the Pirates want a lot of ground balls – and pitch to contact – a solid middle infield is very important.

        Coming into this year I thought most folks saw Harrison as a good 2nd baseman – a serviceable 3rd baseman and an emergency shortstop. Unless that was wrong it would seem that the Bucs would be best served by trying to add a quality 3rd base bat – move Walker to 1st and Harrison to 2nd. Trade Pedro for a bag of baseballs and dump the Davis and Sanchez platoon. Lambo, Sanchez and Snider would make nice bats off the bench – but would have to find a utility guy – Barmes at $1M a year could work.

    • Actually if the point of the article is you have to question Harrison then no matter where you move him, he is a question. In fact, the article has his defense as reliable going forward. So no matter where Harrison moves, he is a risk to turn back into previous form at the plate. Your scenario therefor has 2 problems, Harrison at 2b and 3B with no one. I see no option on the market that fits the “solid” description that isnt going to be overpriced. With the Yanks interested in bringing Headley back it likely makes him a bad value at his current level. Best option being trying to get Hanley for a reasonable price and moving him.

    • I’ve been lobbying for Walker to first for two years. I don’t understand how someone with so little range wouldn’t be the first guy there. Plus he switch hits and solves the platoon issue. If Pedro can beat the yips and go back to his previous years, he’s good enough at third to survive and a nice power addition. An infield of Pedro, Mercer, Harrison, and Walker is pretty damn good when your outfield is Cutch, Marte, and Polanco (assuming he’s decent at the dish).

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