As we enter the final few weeks of the season, the question has already been asked: who the Pirates’ MVP in 2014?
But the real answer to this question isn’t hard to find. Just look at the National League leaders for batting average as of this morning.
At the top of that list, you’ll find Josh Harrison, tied for tops in the league (Justin Morneau) with a .311 batting average.
Yeah, that Josh Harrison. The kid from Cincinnati who was a throw-in along with Jose Ascanio and Kevin Hart in the Tom Gorzelanny/John Grabow trade with the Chicago Cubs back in 2009.
The Josh Harrison that started only two games in April this season (and 69 in his previous three seasons), but was inserted into the lineup — primarily as a right fielder — in May, and has stayed there ever since.
When Harrison was penciled into the lineup on May 3 against Toronto at PNC Park, he was hitting .208 with an OPS of .615. That day, he went 2-for-5 with a double and an RBI and helped the Pirates rally from four runs behind to win, 8-6.
Since that day, “J-Hay” has a slash line of .317/.352/.519 with 12 home runs and 44 RBI in 103 games, all while starting at least a dozen games at five different positions and another four at shortstop.
During that same span, the Pirates have a record of 57-46. That span includes injuries to two of the Pirates’ top hitters, Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, the gravitational plummet of last year’s NL home run leader, Pedro Alvarez, and large offensive holes at first base and in right field (minus Gregory Polanco’s hot start in his first month in the big leagues).
That span includes an implosion of the Pirates’ Opening Day closer (Jason Grilli), the organization’s future ace missing time with an injury (Gerrit Cole), and this year’s ace (Francisco Liriano) performing below the water mark for most of the season.
Yet the Pirates sit only two games out of a Wild Card spot and three out of first place in the NL Central. Why? Partly because a utility player entered the starting lineup and became nearly a five-win player (4.8 WAR according to Baseball-Reference.com) and an All-Star.
And for some garnish, let’s throw in the fact that that same guy is currently tied for seventh in the league in triples (seven) and tied for 17th in doubles (31).
Aside from Russell Martin, Harrison is the most important priority for the Pirates entering this off-season as he enters his first year of arbitration, and he will be due for a significant pay raise, regardless of whether it’s decided by the team or an arbitrator.
But there’s another thing the Pirates have to consider before deciding what to offer Harrison: where do you put him? Second base is still Walker’s territory, Jordy Mercer seems to have put a strong grip on shortstop, and it’s no secret that barring injury or a massive failure to live up to expectations by Polanco, the outfield is now crowded.
Given Alvarez’s defensive struggles and subsequent move to first base, should Harrison be the Pirates’ starting third baseman when the team heads north from Bradenton next spring? Or do you give Alvarez one more chance to fix his throwing woes and send the guy who helped keep your playoff hopes alive this season back to the bench?
General manager Neal Huntington has to decide if Harrison is a league-average player just riding a high wave of productivity (ala Nate McLouth or Garrett Jones) or if he wants to risk losing another slugging third baseman who could be merely at the beginning of his ascension (see: Bautista, Jose).
J-Hay has already shown he can help keep a lineup above water during a long regular season with his bat (141 wRC+), and he is an above-average glove at third (17.2 UZR/150 in 796 innings).
If the Pirates hope to stay in the playoff hunt – both this summer and beyond – it has to be J-Hay all day at third base, especially if he wins the NL batting crown.