2015 Third Base Recap: A Former Position of Weakness Turning Into a Strength

Last year the Pirates saw a big change at the third base position, with Pedro Alvarez being moved off the spot after a season full of throwing problems, and Josh Harrison riding his breakout season into an everyday role.

That carried over to the 2015 season, with Harrison getting an extension before the season, and being named the everyday third baseman for the start of the year. Still, there was a thought that Harrison would work best in the super utility role that allowed him the chance to break out last year. The only problem? The Pirates had no alternatives for the third base position.

Enter Jung-ho Kang.

The Pirates originally had Kang on the bench as he adjusted to life playing in the US and MLB. He started hitting in May, and quickly started getting more playing time at shortstop, while also getting some starts at third base. Kang’s strong hitting, combined with some struggles at other positions, and the Pirates’ strategy to give players scheduled rest, led to Harrison being able to switch back to that utility role, and Kang serving as the regular third baseman.

Things took a change around the deadline. Harrison and Jordy Mercer went down with injuries, which put Kang back at shortstop, and led to the Pirates re-acquiring Aramis Ramirez to fill in at third. Once Harrison and Mercer returned, this led to a much stronger bench, with either Kang or Ramirez playing third most of the time, and Kang switching over to shortstop when he wasn’t needed at third, which eventually led to his season-ending injury.

As I noted in the shortstop recap the other day, the best approach going forward for the Pirates would have Mercer playing shortstop, Kang playing third base, and Harrison in his super utility role. That formation worked well when everyone was healthy this year, providing the best defensive combination, and a strong bench.

Kang rates well at third base. Out of 28 third basemen with 400+ plate appearances, he rated seventh in wOBA with .356, and sixth in wRC+ with 130. Defensively he had a 3.6 UZR/150, which rated 13th out of 31 third basemen with 500+ innings. Right now it’s up in the air how well he can return from his injury. The question of whether he can play shortstop might be irrelevant, since the best position for him seems to be third base.

The Future

For the longest time, talking about the third base prospects in the system usually led to a short article that discussed how the Pirates didn’t have any replacements in the system for after Pedro Alvarez left town. They now have Kang under control for the next four seasons, and Harrison under control for five more years. That covers them at the major league level for quite some time at third base.

However, in the last two years they’ve started to address the lack of third base options in the minor league system. In 2014 they moved Wyatt Mathisen from behind the plate to third base. He’s got the ability to hit for average, shows great patience at the plate, gets on base, but hasn’t hit for much power yet. Mathisen spent a lot of time working on his defense, and it’s not a foreign concept to him, as he played shortstop in high school. Most of his work is on that first step quickness, and he did a better job as the year went on in Bradenton.

The Pirates followed up on the concept of moving guys to third base by making the switch with a few other guys in 2015. They drafted Jordan Luplow and Connor Joe as corner outfielders, but moved both to third base during Spring Training. The Pirates went with Luplow at third base in West Virginia during the year, and saw him put up some great offensive numbers in the second half. He still has a ways to go defensively, but that’s to be expected with a guy moving back to the position for the first time since high school.

Joe played first base during the season, as he primarily focused on getting back to the field after missing a lot of time last year with a back injury. He got time at third base during instructs. That position could be an option for him in the future, although it would be more likely to see him at first base next year in Bradenton, with Luplow at third. Joe did show some good first step quickness at first base this year, with a few nice diving stops on balls hit down the line when I saw him. He also showed a strong throwing arm during Spring Training, but lacked power during the season, outside of raw power during batting practice.

The best third base prospect in the system was drafted this year in the compensation portion of the first round. Ke’Bryan Hayes was drafted out of high school with the pick that the Pirates received for Russell Martin. He went to the GCL, where he showed off some outstanding defensive skills, with smooth fielding and a very strong arm. It’s always questionable whether a high schooler can stick on the left side of the infield, but there aren’t many concerns about Hayes sticking at the third base position. He makes solid contact and drives the ball to the gaps, with the potential to develop a bit of home run power in the future.

In the upper levels, the Pirates went the super utility route, giving Max Moroff, Alen Hanson, and Adam Frazier some time at third. None of them would be options for the position outside of injury depth of super utility roles, but it does provide more options for the future, and might make it easier to find them all playing time next year if they’re all with Indianapolis.

Hayes looks like the best option at third base in the long-term. The Pirates won’t need an option there for several years, giving one of the lower level guys a chance to develop and replace Kang in the future. If Hayes isn’t ready or doesn’t work out, then the Pirates can turn to Mathisen, Luplow, or Joe. The Pirates should start the year with Mathisen in Altoona, Luplow and Joe in Bradenton, and Hayes getting the aggressive push to West Virginia. Hanson, Moroff, and Frazier should be in Indianapolis, which will provide some short-term depth if the Pirates run into another injury situation like they had in 2015.

  • Not sure if I agree with this approach, it is like picking shells up on the beach. You keep the nice ones and discard the others. I hope someone can take over the hot corner but other than Hayes, I am not sure the pirates found him yet.

  • So you’re saying three years from now you’ll be writing columns about how loaded the Pirates’ system is at first base?

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    October 18, 2015 1:07 pm

    Kang and Harrison can hold won the position down for the next 2-3 years or more, although neither is a plus glove.
    Luplow excites me going forward, if he can improve enough defensively to stay at third base. Hayes is obviously the longer term hopeful. Joe improved somewhat this past year, but he still struggled too much considering the level he was at. The sleeper is Gamache – who non one seems to consider a prospect, but all he does is succeed and keep moving up in the system.

  • Kang is huge for us…if he can return healthy and back to an .800 OPS player he will be a massive upgrade for this team going forward.

    • Jared….to me, outside of the Starting Pitcher questions, whether Kang can return healthy is the BIGGEST question. His knee was destroyed by that slide.

  • Any chance that Hanson, Moroff or Frazier get a big league push to open the season? Obviously I assume that depends on Kang(healthy) or Walker(traded).

    • My guess is that we don’t see Hanson until mid-season, at best.

      Moroff/Frazier need to spend some time at AAA, imo.

    • There are moves that should be made this off-season, but anything involving trading Walker and/or Harrison are very dependent upon the health and rehab of Jung Ho Kang.

      The move that can be made regardless would be to move Neil Walker to 1B for at least the pre-Bell months, and bring up Alen Hanson as the leadoff batter and full time 2B. Unlike his previous years, Hanson was solid defensively and struggled offensively, although hitting well against RHP’s. Overall, he hit .263 with an OBP of .313 which are low numbers for him, but his 35 EBH, 43 RBI’s, and 35 SB’s from leadoff in a “down” offensive year are impressive. He and Gregory Polanco would make a perfect #1, #2 leading into ‘Cutch at #3 and I think his defense at 2B will play very well for the Pirates in 2016 and beyond.

      • See, I just don’t think he’s anywhere near the hitter Marte and Polanco were/are and they had their struggles. To expect anything from Hanson in 2016 is really taking a risk, imo.

      • Is there logic behind wanting Hanson at leadoff or just running with a narrative from a few years ago? Nothing in his hitting profile shows leadoff stuff, particularly as a rookie, other than speed. Low OBP totals, not a guy likely to hit 290+.

        Im not even low on him overall, but he’s just not a future leadoff man unless his hit tool gets better in the majors. Which seems likely to happen slowly if his slow start at every level is taken into account. He’s a fine 7th or 8th hitter. He’s fast and has gap power, not sure why those xBHs and RBIs make him smart for a spot where RBIs naturally go down and low OBP is a big issue.

        • The Pirates have had Hanson at leadoff for many years now, and he always tends to have high RBI numbers for the leadoff, more EBH’s than normally expected from a leadoff, and the ability to work walks. He played at AAA in 2015 as a kid 4.8 years younger than the average position player in that league. He was possibly the best defensive 2B in the league and did fairly well at the plate even though I think his .263/.313 could be his lowest average and OBP since coming to the US.

          Are Harrison and Polanco the guys we want to use as leadoff hitters again in 2016? The Pirates need a leadoff hitter for now and for the future. Maybe that is not Alen Hanson; maybe we can buy or trade for an experienced leadoff hitter.

          • If Polanco can put up .320 OBP or better with his speed, every fan should prefer that to throwing the rookie who didnt have that OBP in AAA out at leadoff. Polanco’s AVG and OBP were average for guys with at least 300 PAs, so really im content with that option and hoping on him continuing to get better after his first full year.

            Hanson’s game doesnt scream leadoff at all. Not a high OBP man to match his speed, and not really a great average unless his numbers see no downtick due to vastly better pitching in the majors. Polanco is fine for now, the rush to find a “true leadoff man” seems odd. The lineup is good enough to win games and finish basically top 10 in baseball.

      • harrison isnt getting traded.

        • Y2: First, there are very few hitters who are equal to or better hitters than Marte, except for his K/W Ratio between 4 and 5 to 1. Harrison has the same horrible K/W Ratio around 4 or 5 to 1, but without the power of Marte. Neither has ever seen a pitch they did not like. Polanco is different in that his K/W is lower than 2 to 1, but his number of EBH and sneaky power make him an excellent guy to bat before or after ‘Cutch.

          Hanson is my answer for the leadoff batter where he has a good eye at the plate, hits for EBH gap power, can steal a base, and play excellent defense at 2B. The IL was dominated by pitching in 2015. For example, his .263 average was 27th best in the league – and many of the 26 in front of him were upper 20’s or early 30’s guys. The only kid younger than him was the kid the Dodgers went after to be their 2B.

          Harrison is easy to like, but his future may be back as a utility player because he will not outhit or outfield Kang. His contract reflects a full time regular – much higher than a team like the Pirates will pay for a utility player.

          • Emjay- read my post, I said “inferior version of Marte” NOT inferior HITTER to Marte, referring to his ability to be a GOOD leadoff hitter. And anyways- Currently, Marte is only a pretty good overall offensive player, nothing better. Most of his WAR comes from his defense, everyone knows this.

          • In what world does Hanson equate to someone who has a good eye at the plate exactly?

          • The contract they gave Harrison was to be a utility player and they said as much…..you are full of poor statements in this rant emjay. Harrison is going to play 3rd until Kang is ready then he will play vs. all lefties with Walker on the bench, will spell kang occasionally at 3rd, and Polanco occasionally in the outfield. He will still get 4+ starts a week. I respect your posts in general, but this one just is not good. I’ve had plenty which aren’t good too, to be fair….but you just need to quit arguing this one.

          • and remember Harrison in 2014 with offense and defense would outhit Kang pretty much every time. Harrison had an awful defensive year in 2015, and injuries derailed him as he was hitting his offensive stride mid year. Don’t get ahead of yourself

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