BRADENTON, Fla. – It seems like every infielder that comes up through the Pirates’ system can play every position on the field. Well, maybe not that extreme, but the Pirates definitely preach versatility with their minor league players. They don’t develop players at one specific spot unless they are top prospects and absolute future starters (Josh Bell, Kevin Newman are two examples of this). For everyone else, new positions are given in order to increase versatility and increase future opportunities in the majors.
This isn’t a new trend. They’ve been doing this for as long as I’ve been covering the system, which is almost as long as Neal Huntington has been the General Manager. The first year I covered the team in Lynchburg, they had Jordy Mercer playing mostly shortstop, but also getting work at third base. They had Chase d’Arnaud splitting time between second base and shortstop. And then they added a prospect at mid-season to play third base, second base, and one game in left field: Josh Harrison.
Harrison is a prime example of why the Pirates take this approach with their infielders. He arrived in 2012, playing second, short, third, left field, and right field. He even pitched in one game in 2013. Then, in 2014, all of that versatility — plus a lot of injuries and poor performance — led to him getting regular playing time all over the field, eventually settling in as a starter at second base in 2016.
The current plan for the Pirates is to have Harrison at second base for the 2017 season, although there could be some opportunity for him to move around to other positions. The Pirates might do this to try and get the comfort back that Harrison had in 2014.
“The directive out there is for him to move around a little bit,” Clint Hurdle said. “There’s a comfort zone at second, but actually we’re revisiting the comfort zone he had in 2014.”
Harrison has been good defensively at second base, ranking as one of the best defensive second basemen last year. He also ranks high in base running. His offense puts him at below average overall for the position, making him more valuable as a super utility player. Of course, that term has a lot different meaning than it did when Harrison first arrived in the majors.
“It [was] just a label that a guy couldn’t play,” Harrison said of the utility term when he first arrived. “I’m glad that label is changing, because you’ve got a lot of guys who bring a lot to the table. Their opportunity may not be at one position. Their opportunities might be at more than one position. It’s not being a bad player. It’s being someone who can help the team.”
The Pirates have a wave of players who are arriving in the majors or close to arriving in the majors who will use Harrison as a guide. Adam Frazier made the jump last year as a super utility player, and made a few starts by the end of the year. Alen Hanson now finds his best opportunity to make the majors as a super utility player. Down in the minors they have Max Moroff, Erich Weiss, and others taking the same approach.
The irony of the situation is that these players are looking to follow Harrison’s path of being a super utility player to establish value in the majors, and possibly eventually start in the big leagues. But the best way for these guys to get a starting role would be to replace Harrison, since every other position is locked up for the next few years. I don’t know if anyone would be taking over for Harrison as a full-time starter this year, but Harrison could give them some advice on at least finding a way to stick as a utility player.
“Stay ready and just work, continue to be prepared,” Harrison said on what the young players need to do. “Because you never know what position you’re going to be called upon, and how long. I was in the minor leagues bouncing around, playing second and third. I came up in 2011 to play strictly pretty much third, but then the following year I went back to the outfield. If you’re one of those guys who played multiple positions, just make sure you’re sharp at all of them. … You just have to be prepared for any situation that may arise. We’ve all seen baseball. It’s unpredictable.”
Even though these players are eventually competing to replace Harrison, don’t think that this will change his approach in helping those younger players develop. He received that treatment from veteran players when he first arrived, and is ready to pass the advice along to the next wave of utility players.
“I remember being a younger guy coming up, and Clint Barmes was a guy when I was playing second and short, and he would give me certain things — some that I used, some that I didn’t,” Harrison said. “Going to the outfield, I’d talk to Cutch. When I was first coming up, Xavier Paul was a guy that played three different positions. Not necessarily guys that played infield and outfield. But they can kind of give me [advice] … to make your flow of work more easy. Kind of make it efficient.”
The 2017 season will provide an interesting dynamic. Hurdle said that they don’t yet know which role will bring more comfort for him, since he’s shown comfort as both a starter and a super utility player. And as normal injuries take place, it will be interesting to see if they get Harrison in a mix with other utility players, moving everyone around to different spots.
“There was a time last year where I played one inning in right field,” Harrison said. “So I’m not going to completely throw everything out. I’m going to play second, but also know that baseball presents us with certain obstacles and challenges that I may be called upon to go to third, or maybe go back to the outfield.”
Harrison can play eight positions on the field, even serving as an emergency pitcher. But there is one spot he will rule out: Catching.
“I think we can go ahead and scratch that one,” Harrison joked. “If we had to go for me to complete the nine positions, that’s one position that I wouldn’t mind to say I only played eight.”