Last year the Pirates saw a big change at the third base position, with Pedro Alvarez being moved off the spot after a season full of throwing problems, and Josh Harrison riding his breakout season into an everyday role.
That carried over to the 2015 season, with Harrison getting an extension before the season, and being named the everyday third baseman for the start of the year. Still, there was a thought that Harrison would work best in the super utility role that allowed him the chance to break out last year. The only problem? The Pirates had no alternatives for the third base position.
Enter Jung-ho Kang.
The Pirates originally had Kang on the bench as he adjusted to life playing in the US and MLB. He started hitting in May, and quickly started getting more playing time at shortstop, while also getting some starts at third base. Kang’s strong hitting, combined with some struggles at other positions, and the Pirates’ strategy to give players scheduled rest, led to Harrison being able to switch back to that utility role, and Kang serving as the regular third baseman.
Things took a change around the deadline. Harrison and Jordy Mercer went down with injuries, which put Kang back at shortstop, and led to the Pirates re-acquiring Aramis Ramirez to fill in at third. Once Harrison and Mercer returned, this led to a much stronger bench, with either Kang or Ramirez playing third most of the time, and Kang switching over to shortstop when he wasn’t needed at third, which eventually led to his season-ending injury.
As I noted in the shortstop recap the other day, the best approach going forward for the Pirates would have Mercer playing shortstop, Kang playing third base, and Harrison in his super utility role. That formation worked well when everyone was healthy this year, providing the best defensive combination, and a strong bench.
Kang rates well at third base. Out of 28 third basemen with 400+ plate appearances, he rated seventh in wOBA with .356, and sixth in wRC+ with 130. Defensively he had a 3.6 UZR/150, which rated 13th out of 31 third basemen with 500+ innings. Right now it’s up in the air how well he can return from his injury. The question of whether he can play shortstop might be irrelevant, since the best position for him seems to be third base.
For the longest time, talking about the third base prospects in the system usually led to a short article that discussed how the Pirates didn’t have any replacements in the system for after Pedro Alvarez left town. They now have Kang under control for the next four seasons, and Harrison under control for five more years. That covers them at the major league level for quite some time at third base.
However, in the last two years they’ve started to address the lack of third base options in the minor league system. In 2014 they moved Wyatt Mathisen from behind the plate to third base. He’s got the ability to hit for average, shows great patience at the plate, gets on base, but hasn’t hit for much power yet. Mathisen spent a lot of time working on his defense, and it’s not a foreign concept to him, as he played shortstop in high school. Most of his work is on that first step quickness, and he did a better job as the year went on in Bradenton.
The Pirates followed up on the concept of moving guys to third base by making the switch with a few other guys in 2015. They drafted Jordan Luplow and Connor Joe as corner outfielders, but moved both to third base during Spring Training. The Pirates went with Luplow at third base in West Virginia during the year, and saw him put up some great offensive numbers in the second half. He still has a ways to go defensively, but that’s to be expected with a guy moving back to the position for the first time since high school.
Joe played first base during the season, as he primarily focused on getting back to the field after missing a lot of time last year with a back injury. He got time at third base during instructs. That position could be an option for him in the future, although it would be more likely to see him at first base next year in Bradenton, with Luplow at third. Joe did show some good first step quickness at first base this year, with a few nice diving stops on balls hit down the line when I saw him. He also showed a strong throwing arm during Spring Training, but lacked power during the season, outside of raw power during batting practice.
The best third base prospect in the system was drafted this year in the compensation portion of the first round. Ke’Bryan Hayes was drafted out of high school with the pick that the Pirates received for Russell Martin. He went to the GCL, where he showed off some outstanding defensive skills, with smooth fielding and a very strong arm. It’s always questionable whether a high schooler can stick on the left side of the infield, but there aren’t many concerns about Hayes sticking at the third base position. He makes solid contact and drives the ball to the gaps, with the potential to develop a bit of home run power in the future.
In the upper levels, the Pirates went the super utility route, giving Max Moroff, Alen Hanson, and Adam Frazier some time at third. None of them would be options for the position outside of injury depth of super utility roles, but it does provide more options for the future, and might make it easier to find them all playing time next year if they’re all with Indianapolis.
Hayes looks like the best option at third base in the long-term. The Pirates won’t need an option there for several years, giving one of the lower level guys a chance to develop and replace Kang in the future. If Hayes isn’t ready or doesn’t work out, then the Pirates can turn to Mathisen, Luplow, or Joe. The Pirates should start the year with Mathisen in Altoona, Luplow and Joe in Bradenton, and Hayes getting the aggressive push to West Virginia. Hanson, Moroff, and Frazier should be in Indianapolis, which will provide some short-term depth if the Pirates run into another injury situation like they had in 2015.