In April of 2015, Neal Huntington and Friends did two things they usually don’t do:
- They made a decision based on emotions
- They bought at the highest point on a commodity
Last April was when the Pirates signed Josh Harrison to a 4 year/$27.3M extension with two club options for 2019 and 2020. Harrison was coming off a splendid 2014 campaign that saw him place in the top 10 of NL MVP voting, thanks to a .315/.347/.490 triple slash line that was well above and beyond anything he had done in his career to that point. It seemed as if each of his 13 homers and 18 stolen bases occurred at a crucial time.
In some respects, Harrison was emblematic of that 2014 campaign for the Pirates — they started out floundering, turned to Josh Harrison as a spark in early May, then his breakout year added jet fuel to their run to the Wild Card against the Giants. Although he played primarily at 3B that year, Harrison also saw time at 2B (17 games), SS (4 games), LF (21 games) and RF (23 games). His defense was phenomenal no matter where he was positioned, providing web gems all around the infield and outfield.
Up to that point in his career, Harrison was viewed as a super-utility man at best. He was too small to be a starter, not enough power, not enough range for defense. But whatever happened that 2014 season, even if it was just a run of great luck for 5 months, was magical and it was important to the team’s success. But that’s where it should have stayed. Harrison should have been taken year-to-year through arbitration, just in case his return trip to Earth was sudden and abrupt. He’s the kind of player that, to me at least, is a decent complementary player, but not one I want to be locked into a long-term deal with.
The Pirates disagreed. It may have been Harrison’s ever-present exuberance or good cheer in the clubhouse. It could have been his hustle that has never taken a game off in his career. Maybe they just thought he was truly on his way to becoming a breakout star. I’m not sure how much Hurdle influenced the decision, but in April of last year that extension was signed. Immediately, I felt it was unnecessary, especially to commit close to 10% of future payroll to someone with such little track record.
Harrison’s 2015 season was marred by injuries and his final line reflected those struggles — .287/.327/.390 with 4 homers and 10 stolen bases in 449 at-bats, good for an exactly league average wRC+ of 100. And if I may blast my trombone a little further, that 2015 line was almost exactly what I forecast he would regress to prior to the start of the 2015 season when I predicted a .285/.317/.435 line.
That said, I was willing to give him a fresh start in 2016. Harrison had the slightly added pressure of being engaged in the Neil Walker-Josh Harrison showdown by many fans, though. Every homer that Walker hit in April for the Mets was compared to each defensive play that Harrison made that would have been outside of Walker’s range. Stolen bases and hustle were weighed against homers and hometown nostalgia. Walker has cooled considerably, but with still 1/3 of the season remaining it appears as if Walker has won the argument for 2016.
- Neil Walker — .273/.334/.460 (794 OPS, 115 wRC+, 3.0 WAR) with 20 homers and 3 stolen bases
- Josh Harrison — .270/.300/.383 (683 OPS, 84 wRC+, 0.7 WAR) with 4 homers and 15 stolen bases
I understand why the Pirates traded Neil Walker and I don’t want to rehash the sub-par return in the form of Jon Niese. I wouldn’t have made the move myself, but I get it.
Here’s a look at Josh Harrison’s career wRC+ by year:
- 2011 — 79 wRC+ (21% less offense generated than league average)
- 2012 — 71 wRC+
- 2013 — 97 wRC+
- 2014 — 137 wRC+
- 2015 — 100 wRC+
- 2016 — 84 wRC+ *still ongoing, obviously
Clearly the 2014 season is sticking out as the outlier. The Pirates, amazingly, paid for that outlier production, something they never do. Factoring in his signing bonus, Harrison is being paid $5.25M in 2016. Right now his production is something I would pay $4M for over a season, so it’s not that drastic of an overpay. However, his 2017 salary ($7.75M) and 2018 salary ($10.25M) are starting to loom as albatrosses.
The Pirates should consider what Harrison’s market is in the offseason. Perhaps a team that values veteran leadership and hustle (*cough* Diamondbacks *cough*) may be interested in bringing him on. The Pirates would have to either accept a semi-onerous contract back or be willing to append a B/C-level prospect to Harrison to make it appealing to the receiving team. With Feliz possibly departing via free agency, maybe the Pirates could get a bullpen arm of equivalent salary in need of fixing back on the deal.
Moving Harrison would leave a void at 2B, though, as they clearly have committed to him at this point. I don’t believe that Adam Frazier or Max Moroff could handle 2B for 140 games a season; both feel like solid bench/utility players to me at this point. It has seemed clear to me for some time now that the Pirates don’t have faith in Alen Hanson long-term, either. Outside of Neil Walker, the 2B free agent market is threadbare. I also can’t see Walker or the Pirates interested in a reunion, anyway, as it seemed like the bad blood boiled over and both sides want to move on. Maybe the Pirates could bring back Steve Pearce to play 2B, as he has 14 games for the Rays at 2B this season, to be a stopgap in 2017. At least his bat would be useful (.305/.384/.512, 145 wRC+ so far this year).
Sure, the Pirates could continue to hope for a rebound close to that 2014 season, but as I’ve heard “Hope is not a method.” The salaries owed to Harrison won’t kill the payroll, but you know that the Pirates always have one and a half eyes on the bottom line and every penny counts when assembling the roster. With the 2017 season appearing to be the “go for it” year before (probably) McCutchen departs after the year, the Pirates may go forth one more time into the fire with Harrison and hope for the best. But they would be remiss to at least not explore all options with Harrison this fall.