I wrote about the second base position going into the weekend, and how the Pirates have a difficult decision to make at second base. They have Josh Harrison making $10 M, Sean Rodriguez making $5 M, and Max Moroff as the first of several young players who should get a shot at the full-time job at some point over the next few years.
One strategy would be for the Pirates to trade Harrison, go with Rodriguez and Moroff as the starters (until Moroff can show that he’s capable of starting on his own), and using Harrison’s savings elsewhere for a bigger impact.
As a few people noted, that second base position isn’t an independent issue. The Pirates also have a question mark at third base, and you could argue that Harrison would be a good fit at the position, especially since he’s started there in the past, and can provide good defense at the corner.
The 2017 season highlighted the problem in an unfortunate way. Jung Ho Kang missed the entire season, as he was unable to acquire a work visa to enter the United States. He’s currently playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but the situation is hardly resolved. The only reason he’s playing there is because South Koreans can spend 90 days in the Dominican Republic without a visa, showing that his issues aren’t just limited to the US.
I don’t expect Kang to ever return to the Pirates. They had a backup third baseman in David Freese, who proved to be a strong guy off the bench in 2016 when Kang was out of action at times during the season. Freese is getting up there in age, and showed during the 2017 season that he doesn’t have the stamina to be a regular starter in the majors.
So let’s combine the second and third base issues. David Freese isn’t a starter. The Pirates don’t have any prospects who can step in and start at third base. Moroff could be an option at second, but even there I don’t think he should be counted on until he can prove himself. The Pirates could pair Freese with Sean Rodriguez, and have Rodriguez splitting the rest of his time with Moroff at second, although I don’t think that combo is what you want to help your team contend.
The best option for a full-time starter would be Harrison. That would leave Freese on the bench, and Rodriguez and Moroff splitting time at second. I can’t really see the Pirates spending about $10 M on Freese and Rodriguez combined to both be part-time players. So perhaps that would mean they would part with one of them under this scenario, and my guess is that would be Freese, since I don’t think they added Rodriguez recently just to turn around and trade him.
There is also a third option. They could look for outside help at the third base position. That would be tough, as third base is a difficult position to fill. They were lucky to land an impact guy like Kang for a short time at a low price. They were also fortunate to have Freese slip to them as a backup option.
So unless they’re going big for someone like Todd Frazier or Mike Moustakas, I don’t see them finding a big upgrade for the third base position. That’s not saying it can’t happen with the value route again. It just seems like this position provides the biggest need for the team, and the one that they don’t have an easy answer for, or any kind of options for, at the moment.
Leading to the problem at third base is the lack of prospects they have for the position in the upper levels. They have Eric Wood in the upper levels, although he hasn’t hit enough to deserve a shot in the majors, and even then, he would have to show that he has more than bench depth upside.
The only third base prospect who could realistically start in the next few years is Ke’Bryan Hayes. His career path has been interesting, to say the least. He’s a strong defender, but hasn’t shown a lot with the bat. He suffered a cracked rib at the end of 2016, leading to him losing a lot of muscle mass in the offseason. He entered the 2017 season very skinny, leading to a lot of stolen bases, and little power. He showed skills needed to hit for average and get on base, but the power wasn’t there.
Hayes could add power as he fills out, not only recovering the muscle he lost last year, but adding more to his young frame. Even if he doesn’t add a lot of power, there is value in a strong hitting third baseman with speed on the bases, and strong defense on the field.
The Pirates could have other options in their system, although none are apparent right now. They have a lot of middle infield prospects at the moment, and one could emerge as a third base option. The problem is that middle infielders don’t easily move to third base for a reason.
A shortstop like Cole Tucker, for example, would be more likely to move to second than third, since he doesn’t have the best arm strength. He’s improving at shortstop due to his fluid moves, and routes to the ball. He wouldn’t see the same success at the hot corner, where his range impact is reduced and his reaction time and arm strength is tested more.
The same goes for Kevin Kramer, in a more obvious way. He’s got the bat you’d like to see from a third baseman, but he’s only a shortstop option in a pinch, and moving further to the left side of the infield hurts his value.
It’s even more difficult for an outfielder or a first baseman to move to third base, as we’ve seen with Jordan Luplow and Connor Joe in previous years in the minors. That’s why all talk of Jose Osuna going to third base, for example, should only be about giving him more positions to play off the bench, and never about him starting at the position.
The Pirates once had their third base position locked up through the 2019 season. Now, they have their third base hopes pinned mostly on one player, with the hopes that Ke’Bryan Hayes can put it together with the bat, while continuing his strong defense and base running. Outside of that, their hope is that someone from the middle infield bunch improves their weaknesses enough to be an option at the position. And in the short-term, they need to figure out what to do in 2018, since David Freese clearly isn’t an everyday option, and Jung Ho Kang doesn’t look to ever be coming back.