With the Pirates offseason underway, there are a couple of unknowns and questions that need answered before the 2017 club takes shape. Over the next couple weeks, we’ll be breaking down these questions and providing our thoughts on what we could see next season.
Barring a trade or major injury, the majority of the Pirates starting lineup is set is stone. A lot of their core like Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Francisco Cervelli, Josh Bell, Jung Ho Kang, etc is locked up for multiple years. We know that Marte will be in the left or center field. We know that Polanco will be starting in right. We know that Cervelli will be behind the plate. But one position that looks to be up in the air is second base. Our question number one of this offseason is who will start at second base on Opening Day 2017?
Josh Harrison—J-Hay is the obvious choice to start at 2B in 2017 only because he was the guy this past season and has proven to be reliable at the position. After being a utility player for most of his career, J-Hay finally stuck at one position as he made 122 starts at second base. He provided a solid glove at second with 8 defensive runs saved and a 1.1 dWAR, proving to be a significant upgrade over Neil Walker at the position. At the plate, J-Hay was steady with a .283/.311/.388 slash line, but that was another season of decreased totals across the board. Since his breakout season in ’14, Harrison’s OPS has dropped from a career high of .837 to .717 to .699 in 2016, and that’s a concern. He only walked 3.4% of the time and still hasn’t seen a pitch he doesn’t like.
Part of the problem was Hurdle continuing to bat J-Hay lead off when the only thing we’ve learned from Harrison is he’s not a leadoff hitter. Despite a respectable .283 average, getting on base at a .311 clip isn’t going to cut it, and Pirates fans seem to sour on J-Hay as the season went on. The problem is he’s still signed for two more seasons plus two options that could keep him in a Pirates uniform until 2020. He’ll make $7.75M in ’17 and then $10.25M in ’18. Not exactly the kind of money you want sitting on the bench. Factoring in his contract and his strong defensive play, I think J-Hay is the front runner to be starting at 2B again.
Adam Frazier—A second option who could start at second base would be Adam Frazier. Frazier was the Pirates 6th round pick out of Mississippi State in 2013, and the 24-year-old has done nothing but hit at every level in the minors (.299/.363/.370 minor league career). Frazier got the call in late June and all he did in Pittsburgh was rake in 160 plate appearances. Frazier hit .301/.356/.411 for an OPS of .767 in his rookie year. He’s not going to hit for power or steal a ton of bases, but he’ll slap the ball all over the ballpark and unlike Harrison, will draw some walks. Frazier made 13 starts at second base, but became the new utility man playing five different positions. Overall, his defense needs some work (especially in the outfield) finishing with a -0.3 dWAR. I love what Frazier showed with his bat, and I want to see more of that in 2017. Whether J-Hay or Frazier stick at second base, the other one is suited to be the utility man and pinch hitter for this team.
Alen Hanson—Another option to man second base in 2017, a dark horse candidate, is Alen Hanson. Hanson was seen as the second baseman of the future for years after being signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2009. Hanson had a standout season at Low-A West Virginia in 2012, finishing with a .909 OPS, 16 home runs and 33 doubles. He never duplicated those numbers, however, throughout the minors, and it was a load road for Hanson until making his ML debut this past summer. Hanson made his debut in May and then was recalled for September callups. In limited time, he hit just .226/.273/.258 with only one extra-base hit in 31 at-bats. It wasn’t the debut the Pirates were hoping to see from Hanson. While the second base job was supposed to be his for years, the Pirates have cooled on Hanson due to his struggles in the higher levels of the minors. He hit just .265/.316/.388 in two seasons at Triple-A Indy. I wouldn’t write off the 24-year-old Hanson just yet, but giving him the look exclusively at second base in ’17 is a long shot in my eyes.
Free Agent/Trade—If one of the three players above is not the Pirates second baseman on Opening Day then the starter would most likely come from free agency or a trade acquisition. Unfortunately in free agency, there aren’t many options that could take second base for the Bucs. There are a couple of aging free agents in Stephen Drew, Kelly Johnson and Chase Utley on the list. Drew can never stay healthy and he’ll be 34, Johnson is a year older and coming off an okay year with the Braves and Mets and I just don’t see the Pirates anting up to bring in Utley at 38 years old.
Gordon Beckham will be available, but the former White Sox prospect has been a disappointment in every stop he’s made. Chris Coghlan is out there, but his history with the Pirates (injuring Kang on dirty slide into second), I don’t see it as a fit. Jimmy Paredes is intriguing, but after a breakout 2015 where he showed some surprising pop, Paredes spun his tires in Toronto and Philadelphia last season ending with a disappointing season. Still only 27 years old, Paredes could come cheap and be an intriguing project, but he played the majority of his time in the OF in 2016.
And then there’s Neil Walker. Remember him? Yes, the Pittsburgh kid will be available in free agency and it’s not out of the realm of possibility the Pirates could sign him to a multi-year deal. I’m sure Walker would be open to coming back, but it’ll be interesting to see what his value demands in FA. He made $10.5M last season and the Pirates didn’t want to pay that for one year. If Walker’s looking for $10M per year, he’ll have to look elsewhere than his hometown. He matched a career high with 23 homers, but missed all of September and postseason after undergoing surgery on his lower back. With the injury, I’m intrigued to see what he gets on the open market. I think if the Pirates do sign Walker or someone from FA to be the everyday second baseman, that probably means the Pirates would be shopping Harrison elsewhere.
Besides Walker, there really aren’t any viable options out there in free agency that would be an upgrade over Harrison or Frazier, so I don’t see the Pirates making a move there. I think the Pirates could definitely look to acquire someone via trade, a topic we’ll discuss in another post.
Out of the three internal options available to the Pirates, I think they should start Frazier at 2B in 2017. The kid has hit at every level, proved he can hit Major League pitching this season and I think he can be a consistent .300 hitter. Give him a shot. Plus, he draws walks and works the count, which is everything J-Hay isn’t. Harrison’s declining numbers across the board is a real concern, and I think he’s more valuable as that utility player where we’ve seen him have his best season in the Majors to date. Comment below and let us know who you think should be starting at second base for the Buccos!