After Francisco Liriano was traded, the next contract that Pirates fans started looking at was Josh Harrison’s extension. Harrison signed an extension at the start of the 2015 season, guaranteeing him $7.5 M in 2017, $10 M in 2018, and options of $10.5 M ($1 M buyout) in 2019 and $11 M ($5 M buyout) in 2020. In total, the Pirates owe Harrison a guaranteed $18.5 M for the next two years.
That has led to a lot of bad, unoriginal jokes about how Harrison will be traded with prospects in the future to dump the salary. The thing is, Harrison is actually worth his salary. The price for one WAR on the open market is about $7 M. At $18.5 M, Harrison needs to put up about 2.6 WAR total over the next two years.
Harrison is coming off a season where he had a 1.5 fWAR. Last year he had a 1.3 fWAR. We could go back further, but I don’t think anyone expects him to repeat his 5.0 fWAR season, although that season does give hope that he could exceed his 2015-16 production. Still, I’d say that an average of 1.4 WAR per year would be expected production going forward, and wouldn’t be difficult for Harrison to reach. As such, his contract is pretty fair for the next two years.
There’s not a lot of value to be had with Harrison’s deal, but the Pirates aren’t losing value either. Harrison is a below average second baseman, but there’s an argument to be made with keeping him as a starter. Among the 31 second basemen with 350+ plate appearances, Harrison ranked 23rd this year in fWAR. Offensively, he was near the bottom of the pack, ranking 27th in wOBA and 28th in wRC+. He did have some value on the bases, ranking 7th in base running runs. He also ranked 10th in UZR/150 and fourth in Defensive Runs Saved.
This all explains why Harrison was the guy everyone looked at as the next bad contract to be unloaded. The things he does aren’t valued as high, but do have value to the Pirates. His defense, and his base running to a smaller degree, drive his value. That’s what allows him to put up the overall results that make him worth his contract, even if there’s not a lot of excess value.
It also wasn’t a surprise to see calls for Adam Frazier to take over as the starting second baseman going forward. Frazier had a 0.7 fWAR in half a season, while putting up a .335 wOBA and 110 wRC+, compared to .301 and 87 from Harrison. But Frazier’s defense at second base isn’t as good as Harrison’s defense, and he’s also not as good of a base runner. The offense grabs the attention, and the defense and base running are ignored.
Frazier did see his offense start to fade as the season went on, with a .412 wOBA and a 162 wRC+ in his first month, and a .301 wOBA and an 88 wRC+ in his final two months. To be fair, he was dragged down by a horrible August, and rebounded in September. I wouldn’t say he’s as bad as the August stats, and I wouldn’t say he’s as good as the July stats. The September stats seem pretty realistic, with a .324 wOBA and a 103 wRC+. That’s still better than Harrison, but not enough to make up from the drop in defensive value and base running value.
The Pirates have a choice going forward: Offense or defense. They can go with Harrison, sacrifice some offense, and have a much better infield defense as a result. Or they could go with Frazier and sacrifice the infield defense in favor of added offense.
When you look at their results, they really don’t need to sacrifice defense for offense. They finished with a .318 wOBA, which ranked sixth in the NL. Their 99 wRC+ ranked third. Those offensive results came with a few really bad individual performances, and most players slumping from their normal numbers. Meanwhile, they were the third worst defensive team in the league, and third worst in base running. They can afford the drop in offense from Frazier to Harrison in exchange for keeping one of their better defenders and base runners in the lineup, maintaining value at their weakest areas.
The Pirates would be better off sticking with Harrison as the starter. He’s worth his contract, and they can afford that price. You could make the argument that they could find someone with similar value who makes less, and use the money saved to upgrade the team elsewhere. For that to happen, they’d have to find an internal option, and the only options right now are downgrades defensively. Frazier would be the top replacement, and I’ve already gone over his strengths and weaknesses.
Beyond Frazier, there’s Alen Hanson, who has the potential to be just as good as Harrison in terms of value. However, I wouldn’t count on that happening just yet. Hanson has struggled in his initial jump to each level, taking some time to adjust. He has also been inconsistent with the bat, which doesn’t matter as much with the Harrison comparison, since Hanson has some good defense. But the defense has also been inconsistent at times. His biggest issue the last two years is that he presses too hard in order to try and make the majors. He’s out of options next year, and will have to be on the active roster. Perhaps that will allow him to settle down and ease in to the big leagues. But he’d have to win the job from Harrison, rather than just being handed the job.
Sean Rodriguez had a big year, and also has good defense at second base. But I’m not sure that I’d bank on him repeating his offense, especially when he’s probably going to cost around the same amount as Harrison.
Max Moroff is the other big prospect from Indianapolis, although his upside is more of a utility infielder, and he didn’t have a strong follow up to his breakout year with Altoona in 2015. He could be a depth option for the bench next year, but doesn’t project to be a starter. Erich Weiss should make the jump to Indianapolis, and has the same upside as a bench infielder, if he makes the majors.
The best long-term options are lower in the system, and are tied to the shortstop battle. Kevin Newman looks like the shortstop of the future, at least in the sense that he will be the first guy who arrives out of the minor league shortstop depth. The Pirates also have Cole Tucker, Stephen Alemais, and Adrian Valerio in A-ball, and if one of those three joins Newman, the Pirates will have a decision to make about who moves over to second base. Newman should arrive by the middle of 2018, and maybe sooner, but the earliest the other three would arrive would be 2019, which happens to be when Harrison’s options kick in.
The best second base prospect in the lower levels would be Kevin Kramer. He didn’t have strong numbers this year, but he hit the ball hard all season, and kind of reminds me of how Frazier looked at the same level. Frazier also didn’t put up the best numbers in Bradenton, but watching him live, you could see the talent was there, and his at-bats looked better than the box score indicated. I saw the same thing from Kramer this year, and wouldn’t be surprised if he goes to Altoona and has a big season at the plate, similar to what Frazier did after moving up from Bradenton.
Kramer has improved his defense at second base, looking much more comfortable with the turn on the double play this year, and showing the range of a shortstop at the position. He has more power potential than the other players in this article, and if he does break out with the bat, he could challenge one of the shortstops for that future starting job, while also arriving quicker than guys like Tucker or Alemais. Pablo Reyes is another second baseman with the range of a shortstop and some power potential, but he’s inconsistent with both, and falls behind Kramer on the depth chart.
In the short-term, the Pirates are fine with Harrison, as he does well in the areas where they need production. In the long-term, they’ve got a lot of prospects in Bradenton and Altoona who could take over for Harrison, just as his option years start to kick in. It wouldn’t be a problem to see Harrison as the starter the next two years. It might be a problem to see him as the starter beyond 2018, since that would mean things went wrong with a lot of prospects.