Three bargain infield options for the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ recent flirtation with bringing back Neil Walker tipped us off to what may be the team’s top priority for 2018.

Last week, the Pittsburgh Pirates were reported to have “some level of interest” in bringing back former second baseman and fan favorite Neil Walker to Pittsburgh.

Though that rumor is still out there — but yet to have gained any serious steam — we can draw a conclusion from its existence, that being that the club is more prepared than ever to face their future without Jung Ho Kang manning third base.

With no discernible movement in getting a work visa, this is probably the right tack for the Pittsburgh Pirates to take. Perhaps the organization telegraphed as much with the re-acquisition of Sean Rodriguez, who can play third base in addition to his capability at a myriad of other positions.

GM Neal Huntington has given every indication that the club is comfortable moving forward with the status quo. However, if the Pirates look deeply into the free agent/trade markets for infield help, he may find some cost-effective options.

15 HR power that needs to rebuild value

Trevor Plouffe had what you might call a lost season in 2017.

How bad was it? Well, for starters, one can point to a .198/.272/.318 slash, a 28.1 percent strikeout rate and more harrowing statistics which contributed to a -1.2 fWAR rating.

After spending the entirety of his carer with the Minnesota Twins, Plouffe was non-tendered by the Twins after the 2016 season. He latched on with the Oakland Athletics on a 1-year, $5 million deal and promptly set about one of the most miserable seasons in recent memory.  Not only did Plouffe struggle, he was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays and was then outrighted to their Triple-A club. The Rays eventually selected his contract in early September, but his struggles remained.

How bad was it? Well, for starters, one can point to a .198/.272/.318 slash, a 28.1 percent strikeout rate and more harrowing statistics which contributed to a -1.2 fWAR rating.

So why would the Pittsburgh Pirates be interested? For one, Plouffe is just two seasons removed from a two-year stretch in which he posted a combined 5.9 fWAR across 1,093 plate appearances. This, despite somewhat suspect defense at third base, where has a career rate of -6 DRS across parts of seven seasons at third. He can also play first and third, capably.

Plouffe is a prime bounce back candidate who might be able to give the Pittsburgh Pirates 15 home runs in a part-time role, and even that modest amount of power would be welcomed by the dinger-starved club.

And, of course, Plouffe’s services should come cheaply. After signing his previous deal for one-year and $5 million, Plouffe is likely going to be looking for a short-term, bounce back deal — one that might not even approach the $5 million he was able to command last season. The Pirates might be a perfect fit in that regard. The added benefit here is that should Plouffe succeed in building back some value, the Pirates can easily flip him at mid-season for a mid-level prospect.

Speaking of short-term

INF Yunel Escobar has had a long, serviceable career. Having made his debut 10 years ago, Escobar’s name is constantly on the lips in the offseason and in midseason as a player who can help a team with a short-term need.

With a career .282/.350/.386 slash while playing short and third, it’s easy to see why. Escobar is the prime example of the type of player that holds teams together — not flashy by any means but still productive. In his decade in the major leagues, Escobar has been a positive value-added cog with just one season of negative fWAR value to his name, and that was a fluke -0.1 fWAR season back in 2014.

Escobar had a couple of injury setbacks last season that limited him to 80 games — including an oblique injury that ended his season. If he wants to wring one last drop of baseball out of his career, Escobar might want to see if the Pittsburgh Pirates might be interested in his wares.

For their money — which, like Plouffe, should not be very much at all — the Pirates would get a part-time infielder who can handle third base and shortstop, all while providing quality at-bats. For his career, Escobar posts an impressive 8.5 percent walk rate against an even more impressive 11.5 percent strikeout rate. That plate discipline has not left him, as he posted 7.6 and 13.4 walk and strikeout rates respectively in 2017.

Provided he is healthy, Escobar can be a perfect 1-2 year signing to bridge a gap between the team’s current slate of infielders and the incoming pipeline of Ke’Bryan Hayes and Kevin Newman.

Believe it or not..

The last name on our bargain infielder list is one that is simultaneously surprising and perhaps expected as well.

Jose Reyes looked like the next big thing in baseball when he enjoyed his first full season with the New York Mets back in 2005. It is easy to forget just how good Reyes was in his early days, so here is a reminder:

That is some incredible production during an eight-year peak, but even Reyes’ journey through the wilderness that was his years with the Marlins and BLue Jays was productive. Reyes has never been a negative fWAR player at any point in his career, and found a way to contribute even in his nadir 0.6 win 2015 season.

With no discernible movement in getting Kang a work visa, this is probably the right tack for the Pittsburgh Pirates to take.

Reyes has maintained a fantastic batting eye — 8.9 percent walk rate and 14.1 percent strikeout rate in 2017 — throughout his career, and still carries 20+ SB capability even during his age 34 season. Never a power threat, Reyes has nonetheless climbed back up to double-digit home run power, including 15 in 2017. He has been able to slow the tolls of time to the point where he can still help a team in a lot of different ways.

Though a slow start to 2017 saddled him with a 94 wRC+ rate at season’s end, Reyes posted a 108 rate the year previous, and if we take out the aforementioned disastrous 2015, posted nine straight 100+ wRC+ campaigns.

You won’t find his name on any top free agent list, mainly due to his age and skillset. And that is exactly why the Pittsburgh Pirates might be able to bring him to Pittsburgh on the cheap. Reyes is a slightly below average fielder at third base (-11 DRS over the last two seasons), and was even worse at SS with a -15 DRS, so this play would be purely from a part-time/offensive standpoint.

Even that point might work in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ favor, as it severely limits his market. While not able to serve as a designated hitter in the American League, many teams might balk at his fielding capabilities. If the Pirates can live with it, that might lower his market considerably. Much like Escobar, Reyes might be looking to drain himself of all of the meaningful baseball still left in him as well.

Though they are nowhere near the same tier of the top third base free agents — headlined by Todd Frazier and Mike Moustakas — these three names represent the type of market the Pittsburgh Pirates might want to dabble in, should they truly feel that Kang is a lost cause.

Image credit – Flick Creative Commons

Jason Rollison

Jason Rollison has been analyzing baseball and the Pirates in one way or another for 4+ years. Jason's previous stops include, Pittsburgh Sporting News, Call To The Pen and several print publications. He also covers the State College Spikes for the Centre County Gazette (State College, PA) When it comes to analyzing baseball, he likes to take a middle-of-the-road approach, with one foot on the analytics side of the fence and the other on the old-school side. Having said that, he is a sucker for pitchf/x. Jason has appeared as a phone-in and in-studio guests in numerous outlets, including Trib Live Radio and 93.7 The Fan (CBS Sports Radio)