With all of the questions surrounding the Pirates outfield and rotation coming in to 2018, the infield looked like an unremarkable, but overall adequate unit. Josh Harrison was an All-Star in 2017. Josh Bell hit 26 home runs in his rookie season. David Freese was coming off a Gold Glove nomination. Jordy Mercer was… Jordy Mercer. Added to the mix was Colin Moran — a top hitting prospect from a stacked Houston Astros ? farm system. All told, it didn ?t look outstanding, but the 2017 Pirates ? infield was worth a combined 10.1 fWAR. A Harrison and Mercer-led infield had always produced at least 9.6 wins above replacement. It was reasonable to project something similar for 2018.
That has not been the case. In fact, the Pirates ? infield has been one of the worst in the game, combining for just 3.2 fWAR.
The only infields that have been worse are the Mets, Padres, Orioles and Blue Jays. The Jays have an excuse since Josh Donaldson and Tulo were hurt all year. Baltimore ?s total is being tanked by Chris Davis ? historically bad season. The Padres are rebuilding and Eric Hosmer is struggling. The Mets are as dumb as they are stupid.
And then there ?s the Pirates, who are only a length up on those cellar dwellers. Freese was worth a length by himself (1.2 fWAR), but he was recently traded to the Dodgers because Neal Huntington is such a gosh darned nice guy and just wants all his players to compete for a World Series. (*Cough cough* JUAN NICASIO *cough*.) The veterans took a step back and the young corner infielders who were supposed to hit 20 home runs each might not even combine for 20.
The outfield has been inconsistent this year, but they even out to be three above average, if not just flat out ?good ?, players. Francisco Cervelli is in the midst of a renaissance season and Elias Diaz is enjoying a breakout campaign. Trevor Williams and Jameson Taillon have taken giant steps this year, and Joe Musgrove and Chris Archer are two guys just about everyone would want in their rotation. Kyle Crick, Edgar Santana and Richard Rodriguez are great compliments to a deadly one-two punch of Felipe Vazquez and Keone Kela.
Most of the pieces of a good team are in place. All that ?s missing are the four in the dirt. If the infield was worth as much WAR this year as it was last season, they would have about 8.6 wins above replacement right now as opposed to 3.2. The Pirates could have still been in the playoff picture if they had those five or six extra wins.
Let ?s raise the stakes and compare this infield to others in Pirates ? history. First, defense. It ?s not really fair to go too far back because A. most defensive stats and analytics are fairly contemporary, and B. the ones that aren ?t — like errors — don ?t take improvements in field and glove quality into account. Even if errors and fielding percentage were a good way to measure a player ?s defensive prowess (they aren ?t), can you really compare errors made by a player from the 1910’s using a poorly padded cowhide glove, to a guy from the 70’s trying to read bounces off AstroTurf, to a guy today with silky smooth infield dirt beneath his cleats?
So I ?ll take the easy way out and look at defensive runs saved (DRS). which Fangraphs keeps track of all the way back to 2003. The 2017 infield was one of the best defensive infields the Pirates had in that stretch. The 2018 group is one of the worst. They have cost their pitchers runs at every position.
The defense has already dropped 53 DRS from last season. If 10 runs equals a win, well, you can see where a good chunk in that drop in WAR has come from.
Back to WAR. With Freese out of the picture, the Pirates’ infield is not on pace to reach a combined 4 fWAR. To put it more bluntly, that ?s less than one win above replacement level on average for each position.
Over the last 100 years, 18 Pirates teams fielded an infield that failed to combine for 4 fWAR. While that makes it sound like a fairly common occurrence, it ?s really not. The Bucs have had two extended periods of losing in their history. The first is obvious: the 20 season losing streak. The next worst era in club history was from 1946-1957, where they finished last or second to last nine times and finished above .500 just once. The infield failed to reach 4 WAR seven times from 1946-1956. The 1998-2011 Pirates had nine teams fail to reach that total. The only two clubs who did not crack 4 WAR outside of those pockets of time were the 1920 Bucs (1.3) and the 1981 club (who had 3.3 WAR in a strike shortened, 102 game season).
So this infield may not be historically bad, but it is comparable to some historically bad teams.
Jake Smail wrote a few weeks ago that Huntington ?s trade deadline splashes were a good start, but he is going to need to continue to be aggressive this offseason. I agree. There should be some ?financial flexibility ?, with Baseball-Reference projecting the Pirates to have a payroll around $76 million (including arbitration projections). If you read Ethan ?s Payroll Rewind series, you would know that ?s a solid $15-$25 million less than the 2016 and 2017 opening day salary totals. There ?s also $50 million in BAMTECH cash that ?s just sitting in a Scrooge McDuck-esque room of gold coins. Excluding players they re-signed, the largest contract the Pirates ever gave a free agent is Russell Martin: 2 years, $17 million. That was all the way back in 2012, too. It doesn ?t have to be Machado, but how about breaking that record this offseason?
In fact, since I ?m such a sweetheart, I ?ll end this post with a list I compiled of six free agents who should be affordable (let ?s say $13-ish million AAV max over two or three seasons) that could really help fix a struggling infield. The Pirates can ?t rely on just internal options like Kevin Kramer, Kevin Newman or Pablo Reyes to fix what has clearly been the weak part of this team. Being aggressive and getting Archer and Kela means nothing if it ?s only a half measure. The infield held the Pirates back this season and are poised to do it again in 2019 unless it is addressed.
3B Mike Moustakas: The only third basemen with more home runs than Moose the last two years are Joey Gallo, Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado and Jose Ramirez (the latter two of whom have played significant innings at other positions). He could slide over to first base if/when Ke ?Bryan Hayes is major league ready.
SS Jose Iglesias: Going by Fangraphs ? defensive value, the only qualified shortstops who are better with the glove than him over the last three years are Andrelton Simmons and Francisco Lindor. He’s not too dangerous with the bat, but his output is comparable to Mercer’s.
2B DJ LeMahieu: Won a batting title in 2016 but has struggled at the dish since then. Could be an intriguing bounce back candidate and is leading all second basemen with 16 DRS this year.
3B/SS Eduardo Escobar: He was a fairly average hitter in 2014-2015 and 2017, but he ?s having a nice contract year. He probably should just play third base, though.
2B Jed Lowrie: Huntington avoids players in their late 30s like the plague, but Lowrie has been playing the best ball of his career the last two seasons. He ?s second among second basemen in fWAR, so the ceiling is high. He should be in a small to mid-market team ?s price range because of his age.
2B Brian Dozier: Could be a little out of the price range I established. The good news is he has nearly identical walk, strikeout, fly ball and hard hit rates from last season. The bad news is he is suffering through a .249 BABIP clip. The safest ?bounce back ? candidate is still one of the best power hitting middle infielders in the game.
SS/3B Jung-Ho Kang: This is a bonus since I ?m cheating a little. Declining his 2019 option is a no-brainer, but considering what the Pirates went through to get him back into the country, they have every right to drag him across the room by the ear to a table that has a minor league contract waiting for him. One last shot to see if something clicks while presenting no risk to the team.