I keep seeing it said around the Twitter sphere and other social media outlets where Pirates fans ponder the team’s future at second base starting with the phrase “if Neil Walker doesn’t get an extension.” Sorry, folks. That extension would have happened by now if it were coming and the Pirates may even be reluctant to the pay the roughly $10M he’ll make in his fourth and final year of arbitration next year.
Like it or not, his days as the hometown hero are likely numbered and it may not be the worst thing in the world. For one thing, he’s probably already begun the slow roll downhill towards retirement and while he’ll have a couple of solid years before he’s done, the best in all likelihood is behind him. For another, the Pirates have a number of cheaper, younger options who fit more naturally at second base and are not too far from being major league ready. It seems like they’ve added a player to those ranks every month from the beginning of the season.
The Guy We’ve Known About For A While
Alen Hanson had a rough couple of years. While some writers and scouts still keep him in their Top 100 baseball prospect lists, he’s no longer the consensus elite pick he once was after crushing A ball. After struggling with his throwing, he moved off shortstop to second base in Altoona last season and was suspended by the team for his attitude. This year he got off to a terrible start in AAA and got injured just as he turned it around.
Hanson has returned to the lineup and has picked up where he left off reaching base in eight of his first thirteen plate appearances including a home run. Even with the slow start, Hanson’s AAA career has started considerably better than Walker’s. While he doesn’t have the pop Walker had, he’s hitting for average, getting to first with greater frequency and is on pace to score more runs. And all at an age (22) that is one year younger than Walker’s first foray into AAA.
Hanson could arrive in Pittsburgh this summer as an injury replacement or a September call up, but it’s unlikely he’ll stick until Walker moves on. The Pirates can afford to slow his development this season and maybe even sign a stop gap for the beginning of next season while they play the arbitration game. In the long run, taking it easy will benefit Hanson and the organization.
The Guy We Met In April
Jung-ho Kang didn’t get off to the greatest start in America going 1-for-14 in his first eight appearances. Then he went on a absolute tear and Pittsburgh fell in love with the Korean import. He’s settled down since, but he’s still OPS’ing around .700 at what one might hope is the tale end of a cold spell, while playing solid but not spectacular defense at third and short.
Kang provides the Pirates with a few options of how to proceed post-Walker. He can either move to the right side of the infield himself and play second or he can stay at third and allow Josh Harrison to play up the middle. Either way he will provide value and one can dream on even more production as learning the culture and major league pitching becomes a background issue. If his power returns and he continues to make solid line drive contact, he looks like could become a steal for the Pirates over the next three years.
The Guy We Met In May
Max Moroff was an often overlooked 16th round over-slot signing in the Pirates 2012 draft, the year after their spending spree that broke the MLB draft. He hit well in a small sample in the GCL but didn’t catch up to his aggressive push to full season the following spring until he reached Altoona. He got off to a hot start with a triple slash of .297 / .400 / .453 in a small of 75 plate appearances. He followed it up with an .840 OPS May, helping to diminish some healthy skepticism. After a mini slump in late June, he’s hitting well again.
Moroff leads the Eastern League in runs, sits second in batting average, and is tied for fourth in doubles. In many ways, he’s out performing the actual draft buster Josh Bell while playing a more premium defensive position. The key to Moroff’s improvement revolves around a decreased K rate which he has sustained over his first 350 plate appearances. As the sample increases, Moroff’s looking like a middle round steal for the Bucs.
The Guy We Met in June
Adam Frazier may have been a sign of things to come when the Pirates drafted the line drive, singles hitting middle infielder in the sixth round of the 2013 draft out of Mississippi State. Like Moroff, he got his professional career off to a nice start, but struggled in an aggressive promotion. Frazier skipped the South Atlantic League entirely moving right to Bradenton.
The Pirates treated Frazier a bit like an organizational player to start the season by promoting him to Altoona to ride the pine behind Gift Ngoepe at short. He got some time in center field and garnered attention by avoiding the strike out until May 23 over thirty-seven at-bats. He’s made up for lost time by striking out a whopping nine times in June, but he’s hitting for more power than he ever had with a .167 ISO including his second home run in professional ball.
Frazier went from looking early on like a Jeff Keppinger type super-utility player to one who could develop into an ideal number two hitter. The way Frazier’s going right now, he could end up in Indianapolis soon. Problem is, he’s even more blocked there than he was when he arrived in the Eastern League. If the Pirates think they have something in Frazier, they should find room for him before long.
Nobody likes the idea of trading a fan favorite, but the Pirates will constantly need to evaluate personnel to decide who to keep and who to move on moving forward as the first core begins to reach the end of their initial control. Tough decisions like what to do with Walker will come with greater frequency. Thankfully, the Pirates have options which could make the decision considerably easier.