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Should Moran retain third base job?

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Pittsburgh Pirates v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

You would have been hard-pressed to find any Pirate fan who liked the return the club received when the Gerrit Cole trade went down in January of 2018. The Pirates were giving up a potential ace entering the prime of his career, and from Houston they got back nothing even remotely resembling such. But they did get a couple of players who at least had the potential to be solid contributors in right-hander Joe Musgrove and third baseman Colin Moran – and a couple of lottery tickets.

Now, after two seasons in which Cole morphed into the game’s best – and richest – pitcher, the return looks a whole lot worse.

But, should we write it off as a complete loss? Michael Feliz, whom the previous management team touted as a potential late-inning reliever with a big arm, actually looked decent for stretches last season. Granted, they were short, sporadic stretches. Given the unpredictability of relievers, he could blossom this year into a major bullpen arm. Or, he could go the way of Richard Rodriguez and give up a home run seemingly every outing. Jason Martin, a 24-year-old outfield prospect, made his big-league debut with the Pirates last year and batted .250 with a .631 OPS in 40 at-bats. In 370 at-bats at Triple-A Indianapolis, Martin hit .259 with 50 RBIs and a .731 OPS. Given his age, his story has yet to be written, but at this point he has the look of a fourth or fifth outfielder at best.

Musgrove, meanwhile, spent his first full season in a big-league rotation, making 31 starts and putting together an 11-12 record with a 4.44 ERA in 170 1/3 innings. He charted a 3.82 FIP, a 1.215 WHIP, and showed flashes of brilliance, such as a seven-inning, one-hit outing against Arizona in mid-May. He was also occasionally rocked; he yielded 10 hits and eight earned runs and failed to make it out of the fourth inning in a 10-8 loss to the Mets. He also gave up six earned runs and nine hits in four innings against the Braves.

I like Musgrove; I like his fearlessness on the mound and his willingness to take on a leadership role. I don’t think he’ll ever be an all-star, but I’d slot him in the back end of my rotation – and so would a few other major league teams, judging by the conversation that apparently took place at the recently completed winter meetings in Musgrove’s home town of San Diego. I understand the new regime must listen to all offers, and I’ll trust them to make the right moves until they prove otherwise. But I wouldn’t mind seeing Musgrove return and take the ball every fifth day in 2020.

That leaves the remaining piece – Moran. What do we make of the 27-year-old right-handed hitting infielder? At the time the trade was made, Pirates officials talked a lot about him making a swing change that would elevate the ball off his bat – and his power numbers. But in his two seasons as a Pirate, Moran has hit just 24 home runs combined, including 13 last year when it seemed like everyone became Brady Anderson for the season.

He was supposed to be a steady fielder, and in 2018 he seemed at least mediocre – no range but fairly sure-handed on balls hit right at him. Last year, though, he regressed to the point where ESPN rated him 12th among NL third basemen with more than 119 games played, tagging him with a -1.2 Defensive Wins Above Replacement figure to go with his bottom-of-the-barrel .938 fielding percentage.

Offensively, 2019 was a tale of two seasons for Moran. He finished with a .277 batting average and an OPS of .751, driving in 80 runs in 466 at-bats for an OPS+ of 97. Through the first half, though, Moran looked to be on pace for a solid season, as he hit 10 home runs, knocked in 52 and hit .295 to go with an .810 OPS in 281 at-bats. I would have signed up for doubling those numbers — 20 homers, 104 RBIs and an .810 OPS — for a full season, but that’s not what happened. From July 23 through the end of the season, Moran hit just .249 with a .663 OPS, three home runs and 28 RBIs in 185 at-bats.

So where does that leave us with regard to Moran heading into the 2020 campaign? Pirate fans for years have been looking into the farm system and dreaming on one of the franchise’s gems – Ke’Bryan Hayes – and counting the days until he reached the bigs. Hayes, the club’s 2015 first-round draft pick, has excelled defensively, being named the top third baseman in all of minor league baseball for the past three seasons. Last year, Hayes made just three errors in 287 chances, and over the last three years, he has committed only 17 errors in 331 games and 872 total chances. Moran made 19 errors last season alone.

But Hayes’ development at the plate hasn’t come close to matching what he’s done in the field. Last year in 427 at-bats at Triple-A Indianapolis, Hayes batted .265 with 10 home runs, 53 RBIs and the same OPS Moran had in Pittsburgh -- .751. Hayes is not small – he’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds – so the hope is he will add strength as he ages, which will translate to more extra-base power. He’ll turn 23 in January, and some are hoping he’ll wrest the starting third base job from Moran shortly after the Pirates report to Bradenton early next year.

I wouldn’t be in a hurry to hand Hayes the third base keys right off the bat, though. Why not send him back to Indy and give him at least two more months of seasoning – and maybe more – to make sure the Pirates maximize his big league service time? If he’s as special as some think he might be, I’d rather have one more year of him at the back end of his Pirates tenure than a month or two at the front end. With any luck, the club will be in a better position to contend then than it is now. And while Moran deserves the criticism he’s gotten for his defensive performance, he showed in the first half last year that he’s a professional hitter. Let him hold down the fort until Hayes is ready to take over. And then, keep Moran around as a pinch hitter/bench guy, capable of filling in at either corner and perhaps even second in an emergency, as long as he continued to produce decent numbers at the plate.