Pirates' Josh Harrison hits a home run against the Nationals at PNC Park earlier this year.
By Bob Smizik / Special to the Post-Gazette
A popular question in Pittsburgh sports circles these days is this: How should the Pirates handle the new-and-improved Josh Harrison?
The answer: Nothing. Just keep on playing him.
The Pirates’ sharply increased level of play in recent weeks certainly is not due solely to the contributions of Harrison. But he has been highly integral to this success. A smart manager doesn’t mess with a good thing.
Benching Harrison would make about as much sense as benching Andrew McCutchen.
Should anyone doubt that consider this: Since the beginning of May, Harrison has a higher batting average, a higher slugging percentage and a higher OPS than McCutchen. He also has more home runs and more highlight catches!
April was not included in those calculations since Harrison played sporadically that month, although in his only two starts he batted .300 (3-for-10). Harrison did not start to play on a regular basis until May 3, when the Pirates’ record was 11-18. He doesn’t deserve full credit for the team’s 16-12 record since that date, but he gets as much as any Pirate and more than most.
Count me among those who had been skeptical/critical of Harrison not only as an everyday player but even as a utility guy. Count me also as being wrong. This is not to say Harrison has a long-term future as a regular with the Pirates. It is to suggest he’s shown himself to be an invaluable utility player and one any team, but particularly a contender, should treasure. It also is to suggest he deserves to stay in his current starting role until he conclusively proves he’s not worthy.
Harrison is 26. It is rare for a baseball player to elevate his status from fringe-type to solid regular at that age. Freddy Sanchez comes to mind as someone similar to Harrison. He didn’t start in MLB until he was 27 and he won a batting title at 28. Sanchez, however, was a more coveted prospect than Harrison. There is next to nothing about Harrison’s resume that suggests he can do what Sanchez did.
Harrison is making what once figured to be a terrible trade with the Chicago Cubs look good. The Pirates sent Tom Gorzelanny and John Grabow to the Cubs on July 30, 2009, for Kevin Hart, Jose Ascanio and Harrison. The trade was a disaster almost from the first day, not that, as it turns out, Gorzelanny and Grabow were great losses. Hart was inserted into the rotation immediately and was 1-8 with a 6.92 ERA. Ascanio pitched two games in 2009 and eight in 2011 and was 0-1 with a 7.00 ERA as a Pirates.
Harrison, the throw-in, has saved that trade for the Pirates.
When he went 5-for-25 from May 23-28, it was suggested he had run out of steam. Well, he was 10-for-23 (through Monday) since that mini-slump. Manager Clint Hurdle will have to see more evidence than a 5-for-25 stretch before moving Harrison out of the lineup.
What happens when Gregory Polanco arrives?
It’s possible Harrison’s play will keep Polanco at Indianapolis a bit longer. General Manager Neal Huntington has a well-documented history of not liking to give up on players. The longer he can hold off promoting Polanco, the longer he can hang on to Travis Snider.
When Polanco does arrive -- some are saying as early as Friday -- he should play right field. He’s the Pirates’ future at that position. But if Harrison remains an offensive force, he should continue to hit first, where his batting line this season was .320/.367/.529 -- .896. Not even Gregory Polanco should interrupt that run.
With Polanco on the roster, Harrison still can get playing time four or five times a week at third base, second base, left field, right field and -- yes -- shortstop. The Pirates can afford to sacrifice a bit of glove at that crucial position for the offense Harrison has been bringing.
There will come a day when Harrison reverts to his utility-guy role. But for now both fans and the Pirates should enjoy and appreciate his contributions.
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