This is part of a season recap feature that will run this month, looking at each position on the Pirates with a focus on the recent past (2018 season), the present (what the 2019 team looks like) and the future (years beyond 2019). Check out our previous articles:
The second base position is very similar to the shortstop position for the Pirates right now. Both positions have seen a below-average to average starter holding the spot the last few years. The Pirates obviously moved on from both of those starters in September, opting to go for younger players and build for the future. Both positions have prospects in the upper levels who project to be at least the same as the previous starters, and possibly better.
The key difference with second base is that the Pirates might have a reliable option to start the 2019 season, rather than going with a prospect making his transition to the big leagues.
Josh Harrison has been the guy at second base the last few years, and the hope this year was that he would follow up on his 2.6 fWAR season last year. He didn’t do that, instead putting up an 0.3 WAR, thanks to a .250/.293/.363 line and defensive numbers that took a dip over previous years. Harrison also missed a lot of time, only recording 374 plate appearances.
By the end of the season, the Pirates had started to move on from Harrison. They called up Kevin Kramer, who got a few looks, and didn’t look ready for the big leagues with a .135/.175/.135 line in 40 plate appearances.
Unlike shortstop, the Pirates didn’t need to totally rely on a prospect for their future. They had a good story emerging from the bench with Adam Frazier.
The 2018 season was literally an up and down year for Frazier. He struggled at the start of the year and was eventually sent down to Indianapolis. He returned for good in late July, and his performance down the stretch might have been enough to warrant a starting role in 2019.
Frazier hit for a .306/.357/.533 line from the end of July through the end of the season. Prior to that, he had a .239/.323/.355 line. The key thing was what happened on the other side of the game.
The key thing holding Frazier back from being a starter has always been poor defense. His defensive numbers this year at second base were actually strong, with a 5.0 UZR/150, and a 4 in both Defensive Runs Saved and Plus/Minus. It should be noted that this came in 392 innings.
Defensive metrics are best when you have multiple years of data, and this wasn’t even one full season of work. So we shouldn’t take these numbers to say that Frazier is now a good defender. I always equate this to being a .300 hitter. If a guy hits .300 over half a season, he’s not a .300 hitter. If he hits .300 in one year, he’s not a .300 hitter. But if he starts to hit .300 over multiple years, you can say that he’s a .300 hitter.
Frazier isn’t yet that .300 hitter on defense. But if a guy hits .300 over half a season, you’re going to give him a chance to show what he can do over a full season. So while Frazier’s defensive metrics can’t be seen as something you can rely on long-term, they are enough to give him a continued shot at the second base position. The same could be said for his second half offense.
The Pirates have a lot of middle infield prospects in the upper levels. I noted in the shortstop article that most of the shortstop prospects struggled. As for second base, Kevin Kramer was a guy who didn’t struggle. He hit for a .311/.365/.492 line in Triple-A this year, earning his promotion to the majors at the end of the year.
His time in the majors was bad, but all that shows right now is that he shouldn’t be handed the second base job in 2019. He should be viewed as a depth option who can come up in the event of an injury, and perhaps take over a long-term role. Due to his defense at the position, along with his bat — which has good power for a middle infielder — he has the chance to be an above average second baseman one day.
Another interesting option emerged at the end of the year in Pablo Reyes. Anyone who has followed this site would know Reyes, especially with John Dreker raving about him since his DSL days. He finally got that push to the majors, and responded in a big way with a .293/.349/.483 line in 63 plate appearances.
Kramer’s limited playing time shouldn’t be viewed with a long-term lens, and neither should the limited time for Reyes. However, that time could be enough to give him an inside track on a bench spot for next year, with the chance to become a super utility guy in the majors, and maybe even work himself into a starting role, much like what happened with Josh Harrison, and perhaps with Adam Frazier.
The Pirates could see a repeat of history at their second base position next year. They traded Neil Walker away after the 2015 season, and went with Josh Harrison as their regular second baseman, who was previously a utility player, and then a starter in 2015. They now seem to be moving on from Harrison, which is understandable with his poor 2018 numbers and his $10 M option.
The best option to replace Harrison in the short-term would be Frazier, who did enough in the second half to warrant a shot at a full-time starting job. One key factor here is that the Pirates need a starter at both second base and right field. Frazier can play both positions, which means the Pirates could go to free agency looking for a starter at either spot, and start Frazier at the other spot.
I wouldn’t trust Kramer at second base just yet, although I do think he has the highest upside long-term. I also wouldn’t trust Reyes yet, but I think he should have a shot to take Frazier’s super utility role, with the chance to follow the path that Harrison and Frazier had to a starting role.
Second base looks more promising heading into 2019 than shortstop, primarily because of Frazier. He hasn’t shown enough to be a guaranteed option at the position, but the good news is that the Pirates have two interesting prospects to serve as a backup plan, along with the possibility that they add someone more guaranteed from the outside this winter, and go with Frazier in the outfield instead.