How Positional Flexibility Can Help Guys Like Adam Frazier Reach the Majors

The best thing about the current success the Pirates are having is that it isn’t something that projects to go away anytime soon. Most of their best players are under team control beyond the 2015 season. The lone exception is A.J. Burnett, who is set to retire at the end of the year. Going a bit further, Francisco Cervelli, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez are only under control through the 2016 season.

The upside here is that the Pirates have plenty of prospects in the system to replace these guys. At catcher they have Elias Diaz in Triple-A, and Reese McGuire in Bradenton. Diaz is good enough to take over for a few years until McGuire is ready, at which point the Pirates might have the best defensive combo in the majors.

At second base they have Alen Hanson in Triple-A, and Max Moroff in Double-A. Both are having great seasons, and the Pirates should have a replacement when Walker leaves — and that’s not including the possibility of having Jung-ho Kang, Jordy Mercer, and Josh Harrison creating an alignment that puts one of them at second base.

The first base position isn’t great this year, with Pedro Alvarez giving replacement level production. However, the Pirates have a replacement in the wings in Josh Bell. There have been some concerns that he won’t hit for power, but anyone who has seen him in batting practice, and anyone who saw him in the Futures Game on Sunday, know that the power is there. Bell should be ready by the middle of next season at the earliest.

The rotation will still have Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano when Burnett leaves, plus Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke. The Pirates have seen their rotation depth taken down with a lot of injuries, but should still have Jameson Taillon and Adrian Sampson as options near the start of the 2016 season, with Tyler Glasnow a possibility by mid-season.

The result here is that the Pirates have most of their key positions locked down for the next several years, and the positions that aren’t set for the long-term have prospects waiting in the wings to take over.

So what does this mean for the guys in the system who are performing well, and who have the talent to make the majors, but don’t have a clear path in Pittsburgh?

“As we’ve become a better major league team, it’s harder to break in if you only play one spot,” Neal Huntington said on Sunday. “It’s easier to make a club if you can play multiple positions. In an ideal world, each one of those guys will re-establish themselves as a regular at one position, but to break onto a club that has established major league players, it gives them an additional opportunity to break onto a club if they can play [multiple positions]. It just allows them a different opportunity to make a club, to contribute to a winning club at the major league level, and to free up a manager…At the same time, we need to be cognizant of making sure they’re developing at their primary position as we look big picture.”

This isn’t a new concept for the Pirates. Back in 2009, when the MLB team had plenty of long-term openings, and the system had very few prospects, they were taking the same approach in High-A ball. They had an infield of Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, and Chase d’Arnaud. At the time, d’Arnaud was the highest rated prospects, and the guy getting preference from the Pirates. However, they made sure that Mercer got time at shortstop and third base, with Harrison getting time at second, third, and one game in left field.

Both players reached the majors and are now regulars with the Pirates, while d’Arnaud didn’t work out for the team. The Pirates didn’t just settle on d’Arnaud at shortstop, and gave Mercer a chance, which allowed him to eventually improve enough to be a starter and a solid defender at the position. They kept expanding Harrison’s positions, eventually giving him time at shortstop, and the result was that he ended up becoming a super utility player, which made it possible for him to get a lot of at-bats last year over multiple positions, and break into a starting role this year at third base.

Looking at the minors this year, there are several examples of guys who have had to change positions to increase their chances of reaching the majors. Jose Osuna and Stetson Allie both moved to the outfield, in large part due to Josh Bell being at first base. If needed, they could both move back to first, but giving them work in the outfield gives them a better chance of breaking into the majors one day.

The biggest example of the Pirates adding positions this year would be Adam Frazier. Last year he was a full-time shortstop in Bradenton, and the surface numbers led many to wonder why the Pirates were giving him such a push — especially with JaCoby Jones held down in West Virginia. Frazier did show promise last year, but it didn’t translate over to the stat lines. In fact, here was our report on him in the 2015 Prospect Guide, where he was rated 40th overall:

The numbers for Frazier during the 2014 season didn’t look great, although the tools and the skills he displayed on the field were enough to make him a prospect to watch. The Pirates showed how much they thought of him by keeping him at shortstop all season, including at the end of the year, which resulted in blocking JaCoby Jones from a promotion.

Frazier has a lot of speed, great plate patience, and can make solid contact with the ball, with a line drive stroke to all fields. He hasn’t hit for much power the last two years, and doesn’t project to hit for much power going forward. However, the plate patience, potential to hit for average, and his defense up the middle should make up for the lack of power.

The Pirates gave him time at shortstop, and he displayed a lot of range at the position, although he doesn’t look like someone who can excel defensively. Instead, he looks like someone who can handle the position off the bench, but is better suited defensively for second base. The Pirates should continue giving him time at shortstop until a better option forces him off the position.

Frazier’s upside is a utility player in the majors, and while his 2014 season didn’t look great, he doesn’t have a ton of work to get to that level. He needs to show improvements on defense, especially at shortstop. He also needs to take his skills at the plate and have them translate over to the stat sheet. That happened in 2013. He looked good in person at times during the 2014 season, but lacked consistency throughout the year.

Despite the below-average numbers in Bradenton, Frazier could jump to Altoona in 2015. He’s going to need to show that he can hit there before moving any higher. His ability to play the middle infield spots, potential for good contact, strong plate patience, and his speed combines to give him the potential to be a future utility player in the majors. He’s athletic enough that the Pirates could give him a shot at playing in the outfield going forward, in order to further increase his value off the bench.

He moved up to Altoona this season, and he did move to the outfield. So far he has played four positions — shortstop, third base, left field, and center field. That doesn’t include second base, which is a position he has played in the past. He’s a guy who could play any position on the field due to his athleticism.

The best thing is that Frazier is hitting, to the tune of a .378/.433/.494 line in 184 plate appearances. It’s still a small sample size, but he did show a lot of potential at the plate last year, and I think some of this hitting is legit, although maybe not to this extreme. As a result of the strong performance, Frazier has settled back down at shortstop, with 10 of his last 12 games at short since the promotion of Gift Ngoepe to Indianapolis. That’s a big change from his May 30th through June 28th stretch, when he only had one game at shortstop.

I still don’t know if Frazier will break in to the majors as a shortstop, since his defense currently isn’t good enough to be a starter at the position. However, his added experience this year will make it very easy for him to eventually make the jump to the majors as a super utility guy, since players who can play everywhere in the infield and outfield are extremely valuable, especially when they can hit. And if he does keep hitting like this, and eventually looks like more than a utility guy, then the Pirates would have plenty of options to get Frazier regular work in the lineup, and possibly a regular position like Harrison received.

Other Minor League Notes

**Tyler Glasnow had one of his best starts of the year on Friday night, and Sean McCool had a report on that outing over the weekend. Neal Huntington commented on the outing on Sunday:

“His last outing was fun to watch. The velocity was back, the life at the top and the bottom of the zone. He threw some very good breaking balls. Change-up continues to be a work in progress, which the sooner we can get that locked in…He went out and competed. He went out and pitched as a healthy pitcher that was trying to get hitters out rather than feeling if he was healthy or not. It’s a great step forward for him.”

  • Frazier turning into the most Pirate-y of Pirate draft picks in what I’ll call Huntington’s First Renaissance, marked by drafting athletic college bats who make a ton of contact with little power.

    The 2020 club won’t even name positions, just players. They’ll also strike out about 12% as a team and no player will reach double digit home runs.

    • And they will average 4.4 runs per game and drive opposing managers to drink with Bell, Hanson, Tucker, and Frazier all switch-hitters.

      • Quite possible, but boy is this setting up to be an extreme hitter profile.

        No sense getting worked up this far out, but lineups with that little power put a serious strain on chaining hits together. Everybody talks about the Royals last year, except that the Royals offense sucked until they started hitting for more power.

    • Hopefully they can bunt, field and run bases. If they can- they will win. We may need to hire someone like Davey Lopes or Rod Carew in order to figure that one out though….

  • It would be nice to have a frazier we could cheer for. Speaking of fraziers to cheer for, I found myself for the first time in my life cheering for a cincinati(?) red. Good job mlb for making the homerun derby so enjoyable.

    • The fix was in and it was painfully obvious. Even you should have caught that one.

      • I really didnt care at all and even i went “wow, how does Frazier get to hit 2nd in the final round?”

        Frazier had a ton of time between rounds the last time around. But good for him and CIN, who really cares.

      • See there is that dumb as a box of rocks stuff from you I was taking about. Keep tryin’ though, that stunted sense of humor has gotta bloom sometime. I’m pulling for ya.

  • “but should still have Jameson Taillon as an option near the start of the 2016 season.”

    Tim…..Why would you feel he’d be ready? He’s missed two whole years, essentially. I would think, at best, he’s gonna need half a season at AAA?

    • He hasn’t really missed two full years. He has been throwing since before Spring Training, and has been pitching for a few months now. His stuff also looks great, better than what I saw before the Tommy John surgery.

      He hasn’t shown up in a box score in two years, but he’s definitely been pitching. Also, I don’t know if he’ll need as much time in Triple-A, since his biggest problem in the past (couldn’t pitch down in the zone, making him too hittable) is now much improved.

      • But will they let him win a job out of ST? Seems unlikely.

        • I doubt it.

          • I wish they’d change the rules. It really doesn’t make any sense. It’s almost forcing someone just to be a placeholder until the Super Two date passes. If Taillon is ready out of spring, he should make the team then. They should just make it so that the team has 3 years of team control and then 4 years arbitration. That’s mutually beneficial.

      • Pre TJ- Grooved his FB?

        Post TJ- Pitching on a downward plane?

  • That Batting Avg and positional flexibility has me thinking Frazier could be another Brock Holt. I’ve seen him 3 times and tho no expert, he appears to have a nice short stroke, hitting the ball where it is pitched.