Neil Walker is going to start at second base for the Pirates tonight, which means that the Pirates have some big decisions to make. The first decision is the relatively straigthtforward: they need to open up a roster spot for Walker, and to do that
they’ll probably have to DFA either Travis Snider or Clint Barmes. My guess is that it’ll be Snider, because Barmes’s glove is the most useful tool owned between the two players and because the Pirates will still have Jaff Decker in Triple-A, whether they lose Snider on waivers or not (UPDATE: Literally as I pressed publish on this, the Pirates outrighted Jose Tabata to Triple-A: this means that he cleared waivers, and can be removed from the 40-man roster for a demotion). The larger decision is much more difficult: the Pirates need to find a way to get at-bats for Josh Harrison with Walker playing and Polanco in the starting lineup.
This happened unintentionally, but you can argue that the Pirates’ decision to hold Gregory Polanco down until early June strenghthened the 2014 Pirates and you’d probably be right, from a statistical standpoint, because it provided an opportunity for Josh Harrison to play that he wouldn’t have otherwise been afforded. Harrison started playing regularly around April 26th. Since then he’s hit .315/.363/.479 with nine doubles, three triples, and four homers. That’s actually not terribly out of line with his minor league numbers, and so it’s not crazy to think he could keep hitting somewhere around that pace over a longer stretch, if given the opportunity. So how do the Pirates get him that opportunity?
Obviously Harrison can start at any one of a number of positions against left-handed pitching; Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker can be platooned, no matter how well either one is playing, and there’s a decent chance that Gregory Polanco could need nights off against tough lefties as well. Lefties only make up ~20% of the pitchers in any given season, so that’s not a ton of starts for Harrison. The most obvious place that a lot of Pirate fans and even some of the media covering the team are turning is to make Harrison more or less the every day third baseman while benching Pedro Alvarez.
I wrote about Alvarez and his lack of power this year quite a bit last week, but I didn’t focus much on Alvarez’s monthly splits. The reality is that the difference between Alvarez and Harrison since June 1st probably isn’t quite as pronounced as most Pirate fans think. Harrison is hitting .316/.368/.481 this month with five doubles, a triple, and two homers. Alvarez is hitting .278/.366/.444 with four doubles, a triple, and two homers. Harrison has the edge, of course, but it’s not necessarily a huge one. Alvarez’s defense has been a problem of late, too, but defense has never been Harrison’s strong point. Third base is probably his best position, but it’s possible that the defensive difference between the two is not quite as great as it might seem superficially, especially since Alvarez’s problem is mostly throwing errors, which is something that he might be able to overcome.
The larger problem with benching Alvarez would be this: Alvarez has fundamentally altered his approach at the plate this year, and the results simply are not in on the change yet. Obviously his power doesn’t look quite right, but even with a .400 slugging percentage his wRC+ is just about league average. Shelving him right now essentially abandons the experiment before it’s over and it lowers the chance that Alvarez will be able to keep his new approach and hit for the power he’s hit for in the past, which would suddenly make him one of the most dangerous power hitters in the National League. Simply put, the difference between Alvarez and Harrison has not been big enough over the last three weeks to justify sitting Alvarez down and risk missing what could be a momentous breakout for both 2014 and beyond.
All of this being said, I still think there’s plenty of at-bats to be found for Harrison if Hurdle gets creative enough. I don’t really think his glove is good enough to play shortstop regularly, but neither Jordy Mercer nor Clint Barmes have really seized the shortstop position. You can probably find occasional starts for Harrison at short with someone like Gerrit Cole on the mound, particularly if Cole’s strikeout rate picks up after he comes back. It’s also true that both Marte and Alvarez are very slump prone, and that Polanco will likely struggle at some point during his rookie season, as well. Neil Walker’s back hasn’t been a problem yet in 2014, but it has been in the past and it’s possible that he might need a few off-days here and there through the season. And of course, all of this is just assuming that no one is going to get hurt at any point.
All of this is to say that while it’s not necessarily immediately apparent how the Pirates can or should use Harrison now that the starting lineup is at full strength, there should be plenty of opportunities to work him in without doing so at the expense of the majority of Pedro Alvarez’s at-bats. It might take a little creativity, but that’s how these things work sometimes. Having too many good hitters is a problem that the Pirates haven’t had all that often of late.