The Pirates’ Potential Position-Player Pickle

The Pirates have a lot of talented players. This is a good thing. But one of the issues with having a lot of good players is that you run out of spots for them. This happened to some degree last season after the team re-acquired Aramis Ramirez. Ramirez, despite possessing starter-type talent, was forced to contend with a crowded third-base depth chart. Now the club might have similar crowding on the other side of the age spectrum — in this case, with the rise of prospect Alen Hanson.

Hanson has been a prospect for a little while now, and his star has dimmed somewhat since he moved to second base. Or so you might have thought. How you feel about second-base prospect Alen Hanson may depend on how you view your prospects, in general. Both Chris Mitchell’s KATOH and Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS rate Hanson as a top-40 prospect (22nd by KATOH, 38th by ZiPS). Scouts aren’t as bullish on him, however, even if they like him fine. Last year, Kiley McDaniel palced him toward the bottom of his top 200 list, and Baseball America more or less would have had him in the same position this year. In other words, many see him as a top-10 prospect on a team, but not a top-100 prospect in the game.

The Steamer projections would seem to agree with that, projecting him for an 81 wRC+, or a .285 wOBA. That’s not necessarily good, but two points there. One, it’s not a death knell for a young middle infielder to come up and put in a below-average offensive seasons in their rookie year. The list of 23-year-old rookie second basemen who posted a 90 wRC+ or worse includes Kolten Wong, Marcus Semien, Ray Durham and Erick Aybar. Second, Steamer isn’t as high on Hanson’s triples prowess as is ZiPS. Jared Cross was kind enough to scale the projections for Hanson in Steamer and ZiPS to 600 plate appearances, and the difference is eight extra-base hits, which is nearly all triples. (Another minor point is that the Steamer projection includes the International League playoffs, which drops Hanson’s projection down a hair).

So, like Wong, or Durham, Hanson may end up being an average or better hitter at second with good defense, which is valuable stuff. That’s essentially the 2015 versions of Brian Dozier or Brandon Phillips. A player worth making room for in your starting lineup, in other words. The problem is that the Pirates don’t seem to have much room at the moment. Actually, it is a bit more than the moment.

The main issue is that, with Jung Ho Kang moving to third base, the team doesn’t have a good place to move Josh Harrison, outside of shortstop. Shortstop would be a marvelous place for him to go, as it’s one of two positions where the Pirates aren’t currently projected to have better than 2.0 WAR. First base is the other, but the team has an even bigger prospect coming there in the person of Josh Bell. Back to shortstop, Harrison has only played 205 innings there in his major league career, and just 46 of them came in the past three seasons. So that’s probably not going to happen.

So, what could happen? At third base, Kang is an All-Star level talent who is under contract through at least 2018, and possibly 2019. In left field, Starling Marte is similarly talented, and under contract through at least 2019, and potentially 2021. In right field, Gregory Polanco is established and still promising, and also might not be arbitration eligible until after the 2017 season. Those are all the positions Harrison plays.

It’s not just those guys who are signed long-term either. Harrison himself is signed long-term. He is signed through 2018, with club-friendly options for 2019 and 2020. He’d only be 32 in 2020, so it’s certainly not out of the question that he will still be a productive player at that time.

Ultimately, this is one of those good problems to have. The Pirates have a lot of good players. If one of them could play shortstop, that would make life a lot easier. By both Steamer and ZiPS, Jordy Mercer is projected to be the worst Pirates position player regular in 2016. When he doesn’t hit for power — as he didn’t last season — he’s close to a replacement player. Last year, he accrued negative PITCHf/x pitch values against all seven of the most common pitch types (FA, FT, FC, SI, SL, CU, CH). That’s hard to do. Of the 211 position players who tallied at least 400 plate appearances last season, Mercer was just one of four players to pull off this “feat” — Ichiro Suzuki, Eric Sogard and Victor Martinez being the others.

Where does this lead? The most obvious option is that the Pirates do nothing. Harrison is capable of filling in at multiple positions, and can bounce around playing all of them until someone gets hurt, and if no one gets hurt, then he simply won’t play as much. Or Hanson won’t. But there’s nothing that needs to be done, unless guys start really kvetching about their playing time, which is not something that players generally do under Clint Hurdle. The second is that either Hanson, Harrison or one of the other players currently contributing to this logjam is used to acquire a better shortstop than Mercer. A third thing that could happen is that Hanson turns out to not be very good, making this exercise academic. There are other options as well, but we don’t need to waste time thinking about every scenario.

For a very long time, the Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t have enough quality players. Now, they not only have enough, they may have more than enough. Or, they may have more than enough at the positions where those quality players can actually play. That’s not a bad place to be, but if Alen Hanson becomes the player whom KATOH and ZiPS think he can, then the Pirates will have to be proactive in order to get all of their guys quality playing time.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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6 years ago

Paul penned a piece on the Pirates’ potential position-player pickle.
If Paul penned a piece on the Pirates’ potential position-player pickle,
How may pieces on the Pirates’ potential position-player pickle could Paul pen?

Ozzie Albies
6 years ago
Reply to  D4P

Paul wrote a piece about the location of pirate play potential cucumber.
If Paul wrote a piece about the potential location of the Pirates players cucumber,
How to write the location of the pirates melon games can be formed Paul?

{@D4P, loved your comment, btw. Just couldn’t resist seeing how the translation would turn out – Serb.

Dave Stewart
6 years ago
Reply to  Ozzie Albies

How did that third line end up with “melon games”?