Whether you are a fan of his or not, no one can deny that Josh Harrison plays with a passion few still exhibit in baseball. Since bursting on to the scene with the Pirates in 2011, this former Cincinnati Bearcat has proved that heart and hustle can take you from just a utility player to a starting second basemen in the major leagues.
Despite being a contributor to the Pirates’ lineup in his first five seasons, 2016 marked the first time Harrison was a considered a full-time starter. Harrison had played all over the diamond before becoming the starting second basemen, playing over 30 games in his career at shortstop, third base, left and right field. His ability as a super utility turned J-Hay into Clint Hurdle’s favorite toy and, in the process, became a fan favorite amongst the PNC Park faithful. Harrison was called up to the majors in 2011 after starting third basemen Pedro Alvarez went down with injury. Not many people outside the team beat writers knew much about this young ballplayer. The Pirates had acquired Harrison at the 2009 trade deadline in a deal that sent Tom Gorzelanny and John Grabow to the Chicago Cubs, who also sent pitchers Kevin Hart and Jose Ascanio back to the Bucs, both of whom had less than stellar stints in Pittsburgh. It is not too often when the lesser known minor league player in a major league trade ends up being the best part of the deal, but that is exactly how this played out. Gorzelanny is now on is sixth team since leaving the Cubs, signing with the New York Mets last month in an effort to make their bullpen. Grabow, Hart and Ascanio have been out of majors since 2011. When J-Hay was called up to the Pirates, he instantly provided a spark to the team that had been missing. He batted .272, scoring 21 runs and driving in 16 in 65 games his rookie year. Though his stats may not have jumped off the chart, you had a feeling Harrison could be a factor with the team moving forward in helping them reverse their losing fortune.
After his first season in the majors, J-Hay would struggle to find consistency at the plate in 2012 and 2013. Coming into 2014, many thought he was only good for his utility ability and would never develop into a threat at the plate. Those opinions were quickly put to bed. Following a slow April, Harrison would hit .317 in both May and June, hitting 4 home runs and 22 RBIs over that span. The success he had not only at the plate, but in the field and on the base paths made him an unlikely candidate to make the National League All-Star Game, something rarely done by a utility player. Still, Harrison was elected to his first ever MLB All-Star Game as a reserve. Unlike most All-Stars, he finished the season strong, hitting .322 in the second half of 2014. He closed out the year with career-highs in almost every category, hitting .315 with 15 home runs and 52 RBIs, finishing 9th in National League Most Valuable Player voting, which is an incredible accomplishment since he never had a true position the whole season.
For his efforts, the Pirates awarded Harrison a 4 year, $27.3 million contract in April 2015. This deal included two options that could keep him in Pittsburgh thru 2020. His stats fell back down to Earth, hitting .287 with 4 home runs and 28 RBIs. A year later, he was replacing Neil Walker at second in his first season as a full-time starter. In terms of what he brings to the second base position defensively, many consider Harrison to be superior to Walker. This is mainly due to the simple fact that J-Hay is a much better athlete at this point than the current Met, making plays on grounders that the former Pirate could not make. But when you compare their fielding stats in 2016, Harrison and Walker were pretty on par with each other, both committing 7 errors and only being separated by .003 points in fielding percentage (.989 for Harrison and .986 for Walker). If you use UZR/150, Walker was a +11.1, while Harrison was a +2.4, most likely due to their positioning the Mets used with Walker. In terms at his numbers at the plate in 2016, J-Hay did set at career-high in RBIs, but failed to really impressive in any other category. With him set to make $7.75 million this season and $10.25 million in 2018, is J-Hay the Pirates long term answer at second base?
As of now, there are only two real threats to Harrison who could challenge him for second base: Alen Hanson and Adam Frazier. Once one of the top prospects in the Pirates system, Hanson finally made his major league debut last season with the club. Though he didn’t have the ideal rookie season you would expect for a former top prospect, he showed the coaches enough to give him at least a chance off the bench for the team in 2017. Similar to how Harrison’s speed and hustle made him a household name, the speed of Hanson may push him into the Pirates’ lineup if something were to happen to former All-Star this season. In his minor league career, the switch hitter tallied 205 stolen bases, including 71 in the last 2 years with the Indianapolis Indians.
As for Frazier, this kid is cut from the same cloth as Harrison: super utility. The former sixth round pick (Harrison was also drafted in the sixth round) played five different positions for the Pirates in 2016 including 13 starts at second base. And like J-Hay did in his rookie season, Frazier provided a spark plug the team desperately needed in the dog days of summer, finishing the year hitting .301 in 66 games.
In regards to being the long term solution at the position, Harrison holds the power in making that a reality. Neal Huntington isn’t shy about shipping guys out who don’t live up to their contract. Just ask Francisco Liriano. Heck, J-Hay was reportedly shopped around by the club over the offseason, though they didn’t move on any offers. If J-Hay comes out and performs between the level he did this past season and 2014, which would mean hitting around .295 and hitting close to double digits homers, it would be safe to say he will be in a Pirates uniform in 2018. But in reality, Hanson or Frazier is probably going to be your starting second basemen for your Pittsburgh Pirates after this season. The team will want to get out of Harrison’s contract because there is no way they will pay him $10.25 million after not wanting to pay Walker what he wanted. Either he will be moved at the deadline like Liriano last year or traded after this year ends. That is the business of playing with the Pirates. It’s sad, but you have to live with hit. Personally, I like the way J-Hay plays and would want to see him in Pittsburgh for his whole career, but the money he is making is going to push him out the door.