Somewhat overlooked in the overheated discussion about who the Pirates will remove from their active roster to make room for Neil Walker, who comes off the disabled list today, is another intriguing decision facing the team. It is every bit as difficult to figure and at least as important to future success.
What do the Pirates do with Josh Harrison?
Harrison has done most of the playing at second base in Walker’s absence but well before that excelled all over the field. There’s no getting around the fact Harrison, previously slotted as a bottom-of-the-roster guy, has been one of the Pirates‘ best players since being given the chance at regular play in early May.
Following the Pirates’ 8-1 win over Tampa Bay last night, he was second on the team in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS. In every case, he trailed only Andrew McCutchen. Clearly, such a player cannot be relegated to the bench.
He has shown himself to be qualified to play second base, third base and right field. No doubt he could also fill in occasionally in left field and at shortstop. He can’t play center field, but the Pirates could rest McCutchen by playing Harrison in left (or right) and putting Starling Marte in center.
BaseballReference.com offers these numbers on the value and consistency of Harrison. Before last night, his OPS for the previous seven days was .850; for the previous 14 days, it was .919; for the previous 28, it was .834. If that wasn’t enough, for the previous 365 days, it was .801.
Some would have Harrison take over full time at third base where Pedro Alvarez is having an awful season, a three-run homer last night notwithstanding. Others suggest Harrison should bounce around to as many as five positions, thus enabling manager Clint Hurdle to keep his potent bat in the lineup on an almost daily basis.
Let’s discuss the first option: There no disputing Harrison is having a better season than Alvarez. There’s also no disputing Alvarez has a significantly higher upside than Harrison. There’s reason to believe Alvarez will get better as the season progresses. There’s reason to believe Harrison will regress as the season progresses.
Those reasons are tied to the resumes of the two players. Alvarez was the National League home run champion in 2013. Since 2012, among National League players, only Giancarlo Stanton has hit more home runs. Harrison, despite his strong season, still has a career OPS under .700 and a career on-base percentage under .300.
It would be the height of foolishness -- and fickleness -- to bench Alvarez in favor of Harrison.
The second option makes more sense, but not to the extent some would have it. The thought of Harrison playing six or seven days a week at a different position almost every day is a bit too disruptive to the flow of the team and perhaps overestimating his talents.
This isn’t to suggest he should be sat on the bench for any kind of extended time. That certainly would be foolish while his bat is still hot. But to have him in a different position almost every day is not something that’s likely to work.
Here are some of the things the Pirates could do with Harrison:
• Platoon him at third base with Alvarez, who is batting .204 with a .618 OPS vs. left-handers.
• Use him to give Walker an occasional day off.
• Give him a rare start at shortstop.
• Use him on occasion in the outfield.
• Give him consecutive playing days for a player who is struggling offensively and could use the mental and physical rest.
How much playing time that turns out to be is hard to say. It’s probably not enough to satisfy the Harrison fans but probably enough to best suit his talents
It might be time to extinguish the talk of releasing/trading Edinson Volquez, which some suggested in the comment section yesterday. Volquez pitched eight innings last night and held the Rays and one run on five hits while walking two and striking out one. In his past seven starts, he’s held the opposition to two runs or less five times. His ERA over those seven starts is 3.89. If his poor start June 18 -- eight earned runs, 2 1/3 innings -- is removed from the equation, his ERA for that stretch is 2.19.
He's not someone who should summarily be removed from the rotation!