Josh Harrison’s career has been an interesting one. He first came up as a super utility player, and served in that role as more of a depth option from 2011-2013. He remained in that role in 2014, but something changed that year.

Everything came together for Harrison during the 2014 season, and thanks to a few injuries that led to starting time, he put up a 5.0 fWAR over 550 plate appearances. It was unlikely that he would replicate that performance going forward, although it was enough to show that he was no longer a bench player.

Harrison was a starter the following two seasons, putting up a 1.2 and 1.4 fWAR respectively. The performances may have been limited due to injuries he played through each year. He ended up being below average, with his defense and base running ranking among the best at second base. The question was whether his offense could improve going forward.

That happened in 2017. Harrison hit for a .272/.339/.432 line in 542 plate appearances. It wasn’t quite the 2014 result, but it was good enough for a 2.6 fWAR when combined with that same strong defense and base running. Harrison ranked top ten in both base running and defense among qualified second basemen, and ranked tied for second in Defensive Runs Saved.

The 2017 season was a banner year for offense across the league. So while Harrison’s numbers were up, everyone else saw an increase as well. He still saw enough improvements to go from being below average to above average, but was still 11th out of 21 qualified second basemen in fWAR.

The Future

Last offseason, the Pirates tried to re-sign Sean Rodriguez. The rumor was that they would try to sign him to be their second baseman, then trade Josh Harrison and save some money for another position. That didn’t happen, as Rodriguez went on to sign a two-year deal with the Braves. He got in a bad car accident last Spring Training, and missed most of the year.

The Braves brought him back early, speeding him through his rehab, and then traded him to the Pirates for Connor Joe in early August. Rodriguez didn’t have good numbers, although that could have been due to an early return, along with rust from the time missed.

It will be interesting to see if the Pirates go with the same plan this offseason now that they have Harrison and Rodriguez under contract for the 2018 season. Harrison is making $10 M in 2018, along with a $10.5 M option in 2019 and a $1 M buyout. He then has an $11 M option in 2020 with a $5 M buyout.

With the way Harrison played this year, he is worth those prices. Even with his 1.2-1.4 WAR production in 2015-16, and with a WAR costing $8-9 M on the open market, you could justify the price. That’s especially true if you believe those totals are the floor, and the 2014 and 2017 seasons show a ceiling that is much higher.

The Pirates are in a unique situation. They are likely going to be tight on payroll, which means they need to maximize their value at each position. Harrison might be worth the $10 M, but if they believe they can get 1+ WAR out of Rodriguez and Max Moroff, and get solid production from the $10 M saved from Harrison, then it might be worth making a switch.

I think Rodriguez is better than what we saw in 2017, due to the circumstances. At the same time, I don’t think you can bank on a season like he had in 2016. Expecting a 1 WAR from him would be reasonable, with the chances that he could go lower.

The only reason I would even consider Rodriguez as an option is because of Max Moroff. The young prospect showed off his power potential and his offense in Triple-A this year, hitting for a .254/.390/.519 line in 228 plate appearances. This got him a few promotions throughout the year, and he made the most of it in the final two months, hitting for a .259/.368/.448 line in 69 plate appearances from his August 18th callup through the end of the season.

I think Moroff has a higher upside than Rodriguez. He’s strong defensively at second base, and can provide some offense. You might even be able to get Harrison’s production from him at a fraction of the price.

If money isn’t a concern, then I’d pick Harrison for the 2018 season easily. But this is definitely a small market issue, where the finances and long-term impact at the position need to be considered.

I don’t think it would be the worst idea to trade Harrison and try to use Sean Rodriguez as a crutch to ease Max Moroff into a starting role. If Moroff picks it up early, you use Rodriguez as a super utility option off the bench. If Moroff can’t make the jump to being a starter, you split time between both of them, and hope to match Harrison’s floor.

The Pirates will need a long-term starter at second base, and this should be Moroff’s chance to win that job. He’s currently being chased by several talented middle infield prospects. Cole Tucker and Kevin Newman are both battling for the future shortstop position, and if they both work out, one of them could move over to second base. Kevin Kramer is also showing a lot of potential as a future second baseman, and might have a bat that will be better than what Moroff, Newman, or Tucker could provide.

There are some promising options at second base for the future, and Moroff is definitely one of those options. One of the many decisions the Pirates will have to make in 2018 will be whether to go with their best shot at being competitive with Harrison, or turning their eye to the future, starting with Moroff.

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  1. The Pirates can unload a lot of salary and have some money to spend if they want to. Dealing these guys:
    Cutch $15M in 2018
    Cervelli: $10.5M
    Harrison $10M
    Mercer: $6M (est)
    Rodriguez: $6M
    Freese: $4M
    Nova: $9M
    Hudson: $5.5M

    would free up $66M. Keep Harrison and it’s $56M
    Go shopping for Moustakas, Darvish, and Otani: $60M

    Here’s your OFers: Marte, Polanco, Otani, (Frazier, Luplow, Osuna)
    Here’s your IF: Moustakas, Moroff, Harrison, Bell (Ngoepe, Frazier)
    Catchers: Diaz, Stallings, (Stewart)
    Here’s your rotation: Otani, Darvish, Cole, Taillon, Williams (Kuhl, Glasnow)
    Bullpen: Rivero, Kontos, Leblanc, plus whoever works out from Leathersich, Shugel, Barbato, Neverauskas, Santana, and the guys who get squeezed from the rotation (some of Brault, Williams, Kuhl, Glasnow, Cumpton, Sadler, Kingham)

    … and that’s assuming you don’t get any usable players back for any of the guys you trade.

    Yes, I know it’s not gonna happen and it’s probably not even wise. There are risks with signing guys to big contracts. Maybe they’d suck in 5 years, but you know what, they have mostly sucked in my lifetime, so how about trying things a different way once?

  2. SeanRod has only had one good season at the plate. Love the guy, but don’t want to rely on him as more than a bench player. Prefer Frazier, Moroff, and Luplow getting time.

    Also happy to see Harrison as everyday 3B.

  3. I’m all for trading players at peak value and replacing them with cheaper (and hopefully similar performing) assets, but the thought that the Pirates will have trouble affording a roster with 3 players making between $10M-$15M borders on the ridiculous.

    • But they aren’t having trouble affording this roster. They have the money. They aren’t talking about needing to cut salary just to pay their bills.

      Thing is, this is it. This is what they can afford. These are the guys they chose along the way to be their investments. The equal problem of not having enough money seems to be that they don’t like what they’re spending it on.

      • I wholeheartedly agree with you…and, I think, this is the conversation we’ve been having on and off for a couple of years.

        Basically…commit to something! Are you going to go for it or rebuilding? You really can’t do both. For the last two years, the team has piddled around and tried to walk the line of multi-tasking and it’s failed miserably.

        You probably don’t recall, but I was a huge proponent of trading Cutch after the 98 win season. It was heresy, but everything had already gone right for the Pirates and they bested the Cubs by just one game…and the Cubs ran out and got Lackey, Zobrist, and Heyward.

        The writing was on the wall and that was the time to sell high and retool…take the lumps in ’16 and hope the haul from Cutch really started paying dividends this season…nope!

        So, what to do for ’18? Trade Harrison? Fine…but now you’ve got a question mark at second base…to go along with the one at third…and catcher…and right field…and damned near the entire bullpen.

        If Harrison is traded, the Pirates are less likely to compete…if they’re less likely, why hold onto Cutch? If Harrison and Cutch are dealt…why hold onto Cole? If Harrison, Cutch, and Cole are traded…does the team really need a lights-out closer?

        And to extend the rant…this is why the Pirates drafting philosophy has left me scratching my head. If a team wants to be the type that turns selections into stars and uses those stars until they can be recycled into potential impact players…they have to draft guys that fit that mold. Picks like Connor Joe, Will Craig, and Kevin Newman don’t…not just for what they’ve become, but for what they were the day they were selected. Those are guys are high floor/low ceiling types who are, most likely, going to be vanilla Jordy Mercer-types if they make the pros…good enough to start, but not good enough to build around…and definitely not good enough to become impact players who could yield a significant return that a revolving door team needs.

        My apologies if you read this on your phone…or, maybe, if you read this at all 🙂

        • To me, someone who genuinely believes Neal Huntington is an intelligent man, the only explanation for so much of this leads back to fatally flawed philosophy, that a club “only” has to be good enough to get in. To me, nothing else explains the turn away from upside and toward floor. Nothing else explains the never-ending window refusal to pick a direction. Nothing else explains pitching to contact.

          He genuinely thinks you can build an “okay” baseball club that lucks into the playoffs and runs the table. Nothing else makes sense otherwise.

          • I don’t see anything wrong with, say, acknowledging you’re in a strong division and realizing your best route to the playoffs is going to be a wild card. However, I agree, it seems the mentality is let’s do what we have to to sneak in to a WC spot and go from there.

            The biggest pitfall is depth…if we assume everyone had career seasons this year and the Pirates somehow won another 20 games and made the post season…how well, really, are the Pirates going to match up against Dodgers?

            Look at the Astros…from 2011-2013, they put up 55, 56, and 51 wins. FWIW, the entered 2017 at #18 on the payroll chart.

  4. I just hate the idea that you have to trade Harrison to pay Hudson and Rodriguez. When you’re operating on a small budget, you can’t afford that much of an investment on the fringes of the roster

  5. Hate to say this but maybe the fault lies with the over hyped rookies. Not taking anything away from Fraziers bat but he has not seen a ball he can catch in the infield where he belongs, Bell had a good year but compared to Bellinger he did not produce as expected, Moroff was not given much chance to show what he could do and Glasnow failed so badly it hurt. If these players came through maybe, just maybe, the team could have succeeded and trading vets would not cause such anxiety.

    • Glasnow is the only one you listed above that actually failed to reach his expectations.

      Bell can’t be compared to the only rookie hitter in the league who did better than him and say he “did not produce as expected.”
      Frazier and Moroff were not even hyped let alone over-hyped.

      • I’m not sure where this narrative developed that Cody Bellinger was the only rookie hitter to perform better than Bell.

        Josh Bell was the 14th best hitter among all NL rookies with at least 100 PA.

        Josh Bell was tied for the 14th most *valuable* hitter among all NL rookies, despite getting 70 more PA than the next highest player.

        And if these kids performed as expected, which I believe is an accurate statement, then doesn’t that *confirm* the argument that they may have been over-hyped? This was supposed to be the next wave that pushed them back to the top of the win curve.

  6. Harrison, Cutch and Cole should be dealt this winter. Could reshape this team and give some younger guys a chance as well as add to the roster. Hopefully Huntington can pull it off.

  7. I like the idea of platooning Moroff and S-Rod at 2B. We need to see what he can do.
    But if he fails, I am not comfortable in relying on S-Rod full time. So assuming Kang doesn’t return, I would keep Harrison and move him to 3B. Freese could then back up 1B and 3B like originally planned.

    I know they are probably at their budget limit but I don’t really see what they can do to improve on the cheap (like adding a Rogers, Jaso). And outside of trading Hudson (not good), Cervelli (injury risk), or Nova (overpriced compared to replacements Brault or Kingham), trading Cole, Harrison, Cutch, or Marte is just going to weaken the 2018 team.

  8. Huge mistake to trade Harrison. He is a far better player than Rodriguez. Moroff can perhaps be the utility guy. To me a big question is where to play Frazier. His bat plays and he is a good lead off hitter. This is the big decision on at least 2018

  9. There’s a non zero chance you get the same outcome with Luplow, moroff and Diaz starting instead of Cutch, Harrison and Cervelli and save $35M

  10. Jhay is one of many NH contracts that are on the bubble as far as being affordable for the Pirates. Not a bad contract in and of itself but when you look at him, Cervelli, etc it starts to add up.

    But the thought of Srod and Moroff as your answer at 2b scares the hell out of me.

    This team has lots of problems and way too many damned if you do, damned if you don’t decisions to make.

  11. Tim: Nice subject matter and glad to see your take on the situation. But, any scenario that even slightly relies on Sean Rodriguez being a regular for the Pirates in 2018 is just going in the wrong direction. If Harrison can be traded for what he is worth, do it immediately. But, move forward afterward, not backward.

  12. As for Harrison himself, 2017 to me is proof that he lives and dies as an average or better player based on one thing, power. Specifically, pull power.

    Harrison has an almost ideal batted ball profile, but simply does not have the raw power to consistently hit balls out to center and opposite field. However, when he’s able to capitalize on pitches middle-in by pulling the ball, his natural air-ball tendencies leave the resulting contact headed towards the corner, where home runs are easier to come by.

    He’s a narrow but interesting case study in expected wOBA, which does not adjust based on *direction* of contact. It sees only launch angle and exit velo. By those measures, Harrison should not have produced the power he did as evidenced by a team-leading -0.027 difference in expected and actual wOBA. He got “lucky”, according to a normal distribution of contact. This is also largely why you see such year-to-year fluctuation in power output. When he pulls more fly balls, he hits for more power.

    However, with the way the ball is flying now I’m tempted to buy into him maintaining said power as long as he understands it behooves him to ambush pitches middle-in. If he goes out there with a plan to attack these pitches instead of sending them the other way, then I buy that he can keep out-producing his peripherals.

  13. I’m just a dumb yinzer so somebody walk me through the contract implications of these options and buyouts…

    If the Pirates do not pick up Harrison’s 2019 option, they owe him a $1m buyout making his total 2018 compensation $11m.

    If they do pick up his 2019 option, then they owe him $10.5m *and* must pick up his 2020 option or else owe him a $5m buyout making his total compensation $15.5m for 2019? That’s a pretty damn big deal, no?

    Maybe I’m overthinking this, but there seems to be an awful lot of relative risk involved in triggering his first option for a club with a low budget and numerous 2B options coming up.

    The last time this club had a 2.5 WAR second baseman in his contract year making $10m the consensus was that he wasn’t worth the money to the Pirates. Just sayin.’

    • My understanding of ‘options’ is that they are paid or charged against payroll for the contract year they are the alternate payment for salary. So in this instance, the buyouts are in lieu of the 2019 and 2020 salaries and would go against those payrolls, not the prior year payroll. So for JHay – his 2019 hit is either $ 10.5M or $1 M, with none of that counting against the 2018 payroll.

      • Thank you!

        Do you think that should still impact their decision any differently? Is it better or worse to pay a guy, say, $15m for the year he played or $10m for the year he played and $5m the next year for nothing?

        • I think it forces the Pirates to make a decision on JHay before the trade deadline in 2019. I don’t see them risking paying $5M for nothing. Then again, they still have Hudson on the roster….

          • Yeah, I suppose that’s really the most likely outcome. Either keep keep for the duration at reasonable, if not somewhat inefficient, cost or trade him to someone who’s willing to pay it.

            Also would seem to give them reason to trade him *this* offseason so as not to deal with the risk at all, but maybe that’s just me thinking too hard.

            • I tend to lean in agreement with you on that – particular with the ‘upside’ of the middle infielders the Pirates have at AA and AAA

            • I agree Pirates should look to trade him this winter, but I don’t think they will because Pirates management believes they will be contenders.

    • Walker’s numbers were a few years back. Value of each WAR was lower then and there were still the concerns about his back problems and how that would hinder him going forward. They sold at the last year of control before FA. They dont have the same concerns about losing Harrison for nothing and dont need to make a decision until after next season about options.

      • Fun fact, Neil Walker averaged 583 PA per year in his five as a Pirate regular. Harrison has averaged 515 PA in his four years as a regular. I wouldn’t have guessed that. JHay misses a lot of time!

        • Funner fact – NW has avg 400 PA the last 2 years and avg almost $14M a season. Walker misses even more time, which is the primary reason the Pirates were correct to take a pass on him.

          • That was *after* they dealt him.

            You’re saying that you’re predicting JHay’s *future* playing time to increase based on a *lower* average of past playing time.

            • You cant discount information provided by the training and medical staff about Walker’s pain indicators and the upcoming potential problems. The back was a recurring issue while in PGH. Some of this was also indicated by his declining defensive numbers.

    • Yeah, it’s very player friendly for the options. You’re essentially guaranteeing $15.5 M by picking up that option. Of course, on the flip side, the final year is then just a smaller decision to make. But if you’re picking up one, you had better be willing to pick up both years.

  14. The thing that bothers me is that baseball revenues need to be addressed. The Pirates are toward the bottom of team salaries and yet there has to be talk of who the Pirates need to trade: Cutch, J Hay, Cervelli, Cole etc. For alot of teams these players would be great bargains. It’s a shame we can’t ADD to this core of players. All of whom I really like and enjoy watching play. Sorry rant over.

    • You’re obviously not wrong, but the Pirates *have* kind of sneakily mid-range salary’d themselves to death in 2018.

      This is a club right now projected to have three guys making 8-figures and I believe another five making between $5-$10m. Only two of those guys are probably going to be projected to be worth 3 WAR or more, and four of them won’t be projected to be worth 2 WAR.

      The underlying issue is still revenue inequality, but that’s just not great roster construction for a club that needs to maximize value. Snuck up on me, to be honest.

      • I’m not sure what the problem is with this. Is it that they didn’t get value from the bigger contracts, or that the cheaper guys aren’t leading the team.

        Looking at the makeup of the team, it seems they were relying on the bigger contracts to provide fillers who would live up to their value, and maybe exceed it. But they were hoping for the younger guys to provide the impact value.

        The bigger contracts are guys like Cervelli, Harrison, Nova. These are guys who will probably be around league average, provide fair value for their deals, and might have a big year to provide some big value.

        They are also guys at positions where the Pirates don’t have good alternatives from within. They were taking the year-by-year approach at first base, waiting for Josh Bell to arrive. Meanwhile, they locked up Harrison and Cervelli, with no Bell-type prospect in the wings.

        Seems they were using these deals to round out the team and avoid holes, with the hope that the young players would provide the impact.

        • “Is it that they didn’t get value from the bigger contracts, or that the cheaper guys aren’t leading the team.”

          Yes. I don’t think you can really differentiate the two.

          The idea that they spend market value on veterans to fill holes while also filling their budget and at the same time rely on young, unproven talent to put them over the top seems to be an awfully risky, if not impossible, way to build a club. This seems to leverage what few financial resources they have on a risky premise for success, or else end up stuck in the mediocrity trap without anything left over for actual improvements. It’s not an easy situation in which to succeed!

          What I do think, though, is that this shows the 20% rule can be shortsighted. What I do think is this shows how one can hamstring their club with numerous underperforming mid-level contracts just as easily as one can with an underperforming high-dollar contract. Remember, Huntington himself is the top guy to remind us they cannot pay the going rate for wins. A contract that returns fair value based on the entire league is an underperforming one for the Pittsburgh Baseball Club.

  15. Leefoo and capirate hit the nail on the head: Trading JayHay leaves a huge voice at 3B. Team cannot count on Kang getting clearance to enter the U.S. to play next season, and Freese and proven he is not an everyday player. Keep JayHay and jettison Freese to free up some $$$.

  16. The Pirates have some options at 2nd, but not much at 3rd. My biggest hesitation with trading JHay is the very real possibility that Kang won’t return. We already know Freese can no longer handle 3rd full-time. I would favor moving JHay to 3rd and using other players at 2nd.

    • i think you have to keep harrison until you have an approved visa. if you dont get one you keep him, and split time with harrison at 3rd and second, moving moroff in as utility. srod and moroff are basically both rotating utility men.kang gets his visa, you trade freese likely or srod, if you trade mercer, i feel thats a mistake until you get a top option to replace him. i feel like short and the bullpen are areas that have to improve from outside the organization as well as a 4th infielder that provides something special in his toolset

    • I dont see them carrying Freese and SeanRod. SeanRod can be a defesnive replacement and super utility guy and Frazier the bat off the bench and utility player.

    • I don’t like Harrison’s power at 3B. Especially with the possibility of Kang coming back and one more year of Freese at a reasonable price. I think Harrison’s value is as high as it will ever be and while he is one of my favorite Pirates, having Moroff, S-Rod, Weiss, Frazier, Bostick, Kramer, and maybe Newman all second base types or with 2B experience I think it makes sense to deal J-Hay.

    • Moroff’s main value comes from his defense. Defense IMO is way overvalued in WAR projections. Hence, IMO, Moroff has very little value to a major league roster, outside of a defensive replacement. So, I do not see him as a viable replacement for JHay.

    • I agree with JHay at 3rd. If we’re going to win, I feel like we need him, Cutch and Cervelli in the lineup. I’d like to see them tweak the roster from there … Diaz over Stewy, trade Freese & Mercer, forget about Kang, and to add veteran support to bench, make a FA run at Eduardo Nunez and John Jay. Bell, Fraz, Moroff, & JHay getting most starts on IF with Nunez backing up ss/3b and SeanRod at 1b/2b…Jay and Luplow OF backups and Osuna in AAA. We’d have a little pop with this lineup but speed would have to be exploited better.

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