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.
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.