This offseason, Pirates Breakdown will look at how each position will probably shape up for 2018 and into the near future. This week the series focuses on third base, a position whose status is more up in the air for 2018 than any other for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Third base, more so than any other position for the Pittsburgh Pirates, will have an impact on how some of the others will shake out in 2018. Had Jung Ho Kang played all, or at least some, of the 2017 season, this preview would probably be a lot shorter. Kang was coming off a 2.3 WAR season in 103 games in 2016 and had become a decent power threat, slugging 36 home runs in in 739 career at-bats with the Pirates. Whether or not Kang is able to play in 2018 is yet to be decided, but his performance in the Dominican Winter League has not been great, or even good for that matter to this point.
As a member of the Aguilas Cibaenas club, Kang is slashing .125/.211/.208/.419 in his 48 at-bats. Almost as troubling is that he has just five walks to 19 strikeouts. He has also committed four errors and while he has struggled with that in the past, four in 12 games is way too many. It at least seems that the year away from competition against the best in the world has taken it’s toll on Kang. Fortunately the Pirates were forward thinking enough to get him on a roster so he can start to work his way back. Reinserting Kang in the lineup in 2018 would be a huge boost to the club, especially if he is able to return to form.
What if Kang isn’t available?
The Pittsburgh Pirates are fairly well set at third in the event Kang once again cannot secure a work visa. David Freese played 116 games at third last year and had a .960 fielding percentage so he should be in line to take the lion’s share of the playing time right now. The advanced numbers showed that Freese was fairly solid at the hot corner as well. He had the second highest UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) of his career with three and he had had a positive DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) at 7. These two statistics indicate that Freese was an average or slightly above average third baseman. With a salary of $4.2 million next year and a team option of $6 million in 2019 (with a $500,000 buyout), the Pirates seem to have a reasonably priced player on their roster to play third if Kang cannot return.
Along with Josh Harrison, Sean Rodriguez will no doubt seen some innings at third next year. Rodriguez’s line of .167/.276/.295/.572 with the Pirates and Atlanta Braves does not look good at all, but considering that it was in just 132 total at-bats and he was returning after a horrific car accident, reacquiring him from Atlanta could be turn out to be a great move. This is especially true if he can approach the numbers he had in 2016, including his career high in home runs (18) and OPS (.859).
Down on the farm, the fourth best prospect for the Pittsburgh Pirates is Ke’Bryan Hayes, son of former MLBer Charlie Hayes. Hayes spent all of 2017 with Bradenton and slashed .278/.345/.363/.708 in 421 at-bats. He hit just two home runs last year and has only eight so far in his career, but he did swipe 27 base in 2017, so he makes up what he lacks in power with speed on the basepaths. With eight errors 950.1 innings last year, Hayes is a strong fielder that can definitely be projected to help the team in the future. He still has a few more promotions before he is even thought of for a role with the Pirates, so a debut in 2019 would be the earliest for Hayes.
Behind Hayes is Oneil Cruz, the team’s 15th best prospect and was included as part of the return from the Los Angeles Dodgers at the 2017 trade deadline. Cruz played with the West Virginia affiliate after the trade and hit .218/.317/.400/.717 in 55 at-bats. Like Hayes, he has not been much of a power threat at this point of his young career with ten long balls to his name. He also struck out a whopping 132 times in 397 at-bats between the two clubs, a number that needs to be cut down significantly. Calling his fielding a work in progress is putting it nicely as he compiled a .828 fielding percentage at third between the two organizations. But with the major league club well stocked at third base and Hayes in front of him, Cruz probably will not have a chance to make his debut until 2020 or so.
Similar to second base and shortstop, the Pittsburgh Pirates are fairly well set at third in 2018 and the next few years. The difference with the situation at third is the number of variables at play. If Kang can rejoin the team and hits like he did in his first two seasons, he could be a major contributor in 2018. If Kang cannot return, it is safe to say that Freese will command most of the innings at third, with Harrison and Rodriguez also in the mix.