Tuesday, October 20, 2015

2016 Pirates by Position: Infield

2015 may have been it for the Pirate core, at least so far as the infield is concerned. There are scenarios where everyone old is new again, but the combination of cost v. performance makes it look a lot like a couple of old familiars are short-timers.

Corner Infield - First base will be a poser for NH and the gang. Pedro Alvarez was the man last year, and he did hit a team-high 27 homers for a team that is not blessed with many long ball hitters, and he did put up a 114 OPS+. With that said, he had a historically horrendous year with the glove, limiting him in many games to six innings or so, struck out 131 times in 491 PA (27%) and batted .243. And he's estimated to be in the $8M salary range in his final year of arbitration (all arb estimates taken from Matt Schwartz of MLB Trade Rumors), with 2017 being his walk year (and he most certainly will). Soooo...

He should have some value in the AL as a DH, although he didn't seem to draw much interest last winter. The Pirates will be pushed on spending this season, but are just looking for a place holder until Josh Bell makes the move to the show, which could come in June. That leaves them with the decision to carry on with El Toro one more year and lose him to FA, or try to move him while he can bring back some return.

End of the Pirate road for Pedro? (photo Gene Puskar/AP)
If he does go, that leaves Michael Morse as the starting 1B, minus any moves. The big guy is at best an adequate fielder with a -2.0 UZR/150, but he was errorless last season at first tho with not much range. Morse was dismal with the stick as a Marlin to start 2015, but put up a .275 BA and 118 OPS+ as a Pirate. He had a career high 25.5% line drive average last year, but just a 17.4% fly ball ratio, which limits his power potential (he did lose 31 balls in 2011, so he does have a resume). And he'll be cheaper than Pedro by a bit; his $8M contract is almost halved by a $3.83M donation from LA in 2016 per Cot's Baseball Contracts.

The cupboard is pretty bare behind him; the Bucs have to decide on whether or not to tender Travis Ishikawa (who declared for free agency), re-sign Sean Rodriguez, or cross their fingers that Andrew Lambo's achy foot recovers in time for him to enter the bench race. Aramis Ramirez retired and Cory Hart may (should) join him. The Pirate eggs here belong to Bell; the question is whether Pedro or Michael keep the sack warm for him, with a possible reach for a LH-1B for a bench role.

Third base belonged to Jung-Ho Kang, and his recovery will make things iffy this year. The good news is that his knee wasn't torn up; he basically suffered a badly broken leg, but has a good chance of rebounding from that and coming back at 100%. The question, of course, is when he'll be back and works himself back into baseball shape.

The hot corner is Josh Harrison's for the time being. He's proven he can handle the position, and the Bucs are paying him $5M to play regularly this season. His 2014 season looks like an outlier at the dish, but he's still a steady .280 hitter, is as versatile as they come and brings lots of energy to the field.

But with JHK out for an unspecified period and A-Ram gone, like first, there's not much behind Josh aside from S-Rod, who is likely but not guaranteed to return. So both corner spots, a flash mob scene during the last two months of 2015, are awfully thin going into camp. Both may be filled by June if Bell rakes at Indy and Kang gets healthy, so the Bucs may try to ease through a couple of months with a Pedro Floriman/Gift Ngoebe type on the bench, trading in some O for some D while weathering what is hopefully a temporary storm.

Middle Infield - The question mark here is Neil Walker. He can still bang a ball solidly enough for a middle infielder, but in the past couple of seasons, his range has shrunk noticeably. The Pine-Richland Kid is also in his last arb year and looking at $10.7M for 2016. There is some smoke that Walker could take over first, but NH said that wasn't happening, and with Kang's injury, The Kid's replacement, Josh, will be on the other side of the infield, throwing cold water all over that idea, logical as it may be.

JHK's injury may have bought Walker some extra time as a Bucco. His payday isn't out of line for an everyday second baseman who can hit, and the Bucs would be hard pressed to find an equivalent player for much less. But we don't think he's going be wearing the hometown jersey past the season. He and the brass have never come close to a contract to cover his FA years, and at age 30, the question of how his performance holds up does come into play.

Will The Kid bid Pittsburgh goodbye? (photo Dave Arrigo/Pirates)
Our guess is he breaks camp with the team (although a winter deal isn't out of the realm of possibility) until JHK comes back and Josh can slide to second. Alen Hanson is the heir apparent to the position, but was spotty at Indy and doesn't seem a threat to immediately take Walker's spot. But Neil could be deadline bait, as the FO would like to get something back for him.

Jordy has shortstop by default. He's a steady defender and just entering his arb years. But his habit of starting off the season icy cold is one reason the team has started off slowly since he's become the starter. Still, Kang was his only current challenger at the position, and the Florimon - Ngoebe connection is the best AAA has to offer.

Kang's injury has caused a lot of ripples in what was going to be a transitional season for the infield. It may extend Walker's stay and makes it more likely that S-Rod continues in his everyman's role. It also takes a weapon out of Clint's hands as Josh can't be used as a chess piece now that he's anchored to third.

The reason we think the Pirates will try to tough out the first couple of months with an ironman infield rather than deal (altho a rental at first or S-Rod replacement is possible) is because the holes are temporary, at least by blueprint. JHK should be back during the late spring or early summer, and in June both Josh Bell and Alen Hansen are capable of earning a spot in Pittsburgh. Max Moroff had a strong year at Altoona (.293/.374/.409), and if he keeps on, could become the Bucs middle infield spare part in 2017, if not in September.

Of course, hanging your hat on the pups has its risks, not everyone makes the jump successfully. But if the plan reaches fruition, Pittsburgh will have a young and team-controlled infield for years to come.

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