Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be recapping every position from the 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates. The focus of these articles will be to identify individual strengths and weaknesses from each position, along with a specific way the Pirates can upgrade the 2020 team.
Third base isn’t the biggest area of need, or the biggest potential area of improvement for this team. To be honest, I just don’t want to dive right in to the entire pitching staff yet. So we’re going to start off with a few positions this week where the Pirates can upgrade the 2020 team and beyond in smaller ways, before getting to the big areas of weakness.
The Pirates entered the 2019 season with two options for third base: Colin Moran and Jung Ho Kang.
Moran was one of four players acquired for Gerrit Cole in the early 2018 trade with the Astros. He, along with Joe Musgrove, represented the stronger half of that trade, and the hope of the most upside from the deal, due to his power potential.
Kang was briefly the third baseman of the past for the Pirates. He’s dealt with a lot of legal issues, had missed a lot of time from the majors, and had never gotten back to his old self prior to the 2019 season. The Pirates signed him as a free agent — following their declining of his more expensive option — hoping to get the Kang they saw in 2015-16.
The short summary of the third base recap is that Kang never did return to his old self. He had some power, but hit for a .169/.222/.395 line in 185 plate appearances, resulting in a -0.9 WAR. Moran played a full season, hit for some power, but was replacement level.
Defensively, the Pirates ranked 30th in the majors at third base, and by a good margin. The 28th and 29th ranked teams were three runs better than the Pirates. The 15th ranked team was 13 runs better, and a top three team was at least 18 runs better.
I started with third base largely because it offers this massive area of potential improvement.
Improving the 2020 Squad
As shown above, the Pirates can get some massive improvements to their 2020 team by just upgrading the defense at third base. This isn’t really a secret, as it was pointed out in the comments frequently last week. But the run totals show the real impact.
Finding just an average defender for third base could generate an extra win. Finding an above average or a great defender could add two wins or more in value.
The offense needs to play into the equation as well. Moran was responsible for the poor defense, but had decent offense. That means you can’t just put Erik Gonzalez in there and get wins. The increase in defense would be wiped out by the decline in offensive production.
Moran hit for a .277/.322/.429 line in 503 plate appearances this year. That’s not a difficult output to improve upon. His power ranked 23rd of 25 qualified third basemen. His walk rate ranked 23rd as well. His strikeout rate ranked 5th, but his ISO was much lower — almost 100 points across the board — than the other players with a similar strikeout rate. About the only area where he was around average was with his .277 batting average, but that is propped up by a .341 BABIP, which means it will probably drop in the future.
Moran is the worst defensive third baseman among qualified third basemen. He’s among the worst at power, drawing walks, striking out, and will probably drop down to that range eventually with his average. He was the definition this year of a replacement level player. He’s the guy who is going to give you the bare minimum of what you’d expect from a starter, with a chance to improve in almost every area of the game. You could do worse, but you could very easily do better.
As far as Moran goes for 2020, I wouldn’t just cut him. He could be a good bench option, and in that role he could continue to work on improving literally any aspect of his game to increase his chances of being a starter again. But the Pirates can’t go with Moran as their starter in 2020 while saying they seriously expect to contend.
Ke’Bryan Hayes is the best internal option. He’d instantly upgrade the defense, and has the upside offensively to at least match the production that Moran can provide. However, Hayes won’t be ready at the start of the year. At best, he’ll be ready early in the season, and the Pirates will ignore Super Two.
Counting on Hayes for 2020 would be a repeat of the failed strategy that doomed the 2016 season. He should be considered a bonus, and he should be put in a situation where he has to force his way onto the roster only because he’s ready, and not because the Pirates need to upgrade over the alternative.
The best approach here is to find an outside addition who can improve on Moran, while also being a guy the Pirates could count on all year, so as to not rush Hayes. I’ll add a note here that I’m saving all outside upgrade articles until free agency begins.
The Pirates could upgrade their 2020 team by multiple wins just by finding a guy with strong defense who can hit. Or go the opposite way and find a guy with strong defense who is still a liability at third base. Or find some type of combo in between. There’s literally nowhere to go but up at this position.
Hope For Beyond 2020
The hope for beyond 2020 lies with Ke’Bryan Hayes. He could arrive in 2020, but I wouldn’t expect the best out of him right away. At his best, I see him as an above-average third baseman with the chance to be an impact guy.
He’s got the chance to be above-average just on his defensive skills, plus his ability to hit for average, get on base, and add value on the bases with his speed. If he can hit for power in the majors, he could be an impact guy, and I don’t think we’ve seen the best of his power production just yet.
If Hayes doesn’t work out, then the best backup plan would be moving Oneil Cruz to third base. You’d lose defensive value, but the offensive upside is much higher. There’s no guarantees with Cruz either, and he’s still being used as a shortstop.
The good thing is that the worst position (among the position players) is also the position with the best prospect options. Third base doesn’t look like it will be bad for long, and might even be a top ten position for the Pirates at some point with Hayes. But they need to find someone for the 2020 season until Hayes is ready, and that someone shouldn’t be Moran, but should be an attempt at a big improvement over Moran.