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Post-mortem on the Pirates’ infield

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Chicago Cubs Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The chances of the Pirates having a legitimately good infield went down the tubes when Jung-Ho Kang’s visa application got denied. It’s not that anybody was terrible, because they weren’t. David Freese did just about what should have been expected, performing at a below-average but not terrible level for a third baseman. Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer probably exceeded reasonable expectations by just a bit, with Harrison probably a bit above average and Mercer average at second and short, respectively. (Of course, that doesn’t satisfy a certain segment of Pirate fans who bizarrely consider Mercer to be the biggest barrier between the Pirates and greatness, or something.)

Josh Bell’s season was a bit more complicated. He seemed to be headed for a 30-HR, 100-RBI season until he hit a slump in September. That left him with just passable numbers for a first baseman, but that’s probably not something to get depressed about, at least going forward. Apart from being a rookie, Bell has a history of making adjustments and changes to his hitting style, with the result that he’s gone from a high-average, modest-power hitter to a middling-average, good-power (well, apart from his slump) hitter. He seems to be on-message, as the Pirates worked extensively with him in the upper minors to increase his power output. The bottom line is that his current hitting style is still relatively new for him and there’s every reason to expect continued improvement, even apart from the fact that he just turned 25 in August.

Apart from first base, shortstop is the least questionable position in the infield. Mercer’s shown improved plate discipline over the last two years as well as decent-ish power for the position. In fact, his numbers were practically identical between the two seasons, except for a small power increase this year. Between Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker, Mercer just needs to hold together as an average shortstop for one more year.

Second is more uncertain for two reasons. One is whether the Josh Harrison of 2014 and 2017, or the Harrison of 2015-16, will show up. In 2017, Harrison recaptured the power he showed in 2014, although not the average. If he slips back to 2015-16 levels, he’s not that much of an asset. The other question about second is whether the Pirates will trade Harrison to free up salary. He’s probably their best shot at clearing enough payroll to spend $5M or so on another middle reliever or utility player.

That leaves third base. Freese wasn’t bad in 2017 . . . which, sadly, is about the highest compliment you can give anybody on the team not named Felipe. The indicators, though, are pretty ominous. Freese will turn 35 early in the 2018 season and his power is trending downward steadily. His ISO over the last three years has gone 163 > 142 > 108. The percentage of balls he pulls is heading the same way even more rapidly, his percentage of hard-hit balls is also dropping, and his groundball rate has spiked. The end result was a slugging average that was 52 points below the NL average in 2017. The best thing he did was get on base, but he can’t run, so Clint Hurdle batted him cleanup in about a third of his games and fifth in most of the rest. In short, Freese was a major drag on the Pirates’ offense and it’s almost certain to get worse in 2018. You can at least make some sort of non-delusional argument that all the outfielders and Francisco Cervelli could possibly, maybe, perhaps be better in 2018 and a very good one that Bell will be, which leaves third as the obvious spot for the Pirates to upgrade one of MLB’s worst lineups. For me, it’s going to be something of an off-season litmus test; if the Pirates go into 2018 with Freese and Sean Rodriguez as The Plan at third, that’ll tell me the front office isn’t serious about trying to contend.

Speaking of which . . . one of the more promising aspects of the Pirates’ season was the farm system producing one and very possibly two viable utility infielders. Of course, Adam Frazier played a lot in the outfield, but his bat makes him much more suitable for the infield. And Max Moroff hit well over the last two months, although the swing-and-miss remains cringe-inducing, and the defensive metrics like his glove a surprising amount, even at short. So . . . why bring back Sean Rodriguez?

The walkoff HR was a nice story and all, but Hurdle’s fascination with playing Rodriguez as much as possible was bizarre and frustrating. Rodriguez struggled badly. He may not have been healthy, but that was all the more reason not to let him take so much playing time away from Moroff and Chris Bostick. He’ll obviously play a big role on the team in 2018, most likely forcing Moroff back to AAA. (Or they could employ Frazier mainly as an outfielder, which would continue their pattern of using players in the wrong roles, as they did with Freese.) Having Rodriguez around will mean they’re paying $11.25M, probably something like 12% of their payroll, to him and Daniel Hudson. On a team that has passed on filling serious holes, like its rotation, over the last couple years, that’s a puzzling way to spend money.