The Pirates And Their Colin Moran Problem
The Pittsburgh Pirates added Colin Moran to fill a need this offseason. They also currently have a third baseman who hits left-handed pitchers well on the bench, and that’s created a platoon situation in the early going of 2018.
In the offseason, the Pittsburgh Pirates traded away Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros. At the time, the projection system ZiPS had Cole with the most value to the Pirates, 3.4 WAR, with Jameson Taillon second in line at 2.7 WAR. The club traded away their best pitcher in return for three major league players and a prospect.
The three major league players – Joe Musgrove, Michael Feliz, and Colin Moran – all filled in holes on the Pirates. Feliz was part of a revamped bullpen, adding a power arm to the backend. Musgrove was replacing the hole left in the rotation by dealing Cole .
Then there’s Moran, who was replacing a spot that appeared to be vacant with Jung Ho Kang failing to get a visa to enter the country. That changed at the end of April with the visa being received, but the bat of Moran has been a positive addition and the club has him for the next six years.
Even if Kang returns, the production will be unknown. He’s 31 and outside of a short and unproductive stint in the Dominican Winter Leagues, he hasn’t played in a game in over a year and half. Adding a third baseman was smart, it was a position of need, especially with David Freese not looking like a player who can start 150+ games and give the team positive and consistent production. He still has value as a bench bat, and a player who can spell both the starter at third and first if need be, but no longer a starter.
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Moran is the future at third base, that was made obvious with him being the center piece in the Cole trade. He’s done well so far, hitting .266/.354/.413 with a .280 TAv and 117 RPA+ entering the game Monday, making him an above average offensive threat.
His overall value to the Pirate relies on that bat, however. He’s got good hands and a strong arm, but his lateral quickness and range is underwhelming. His -3.0 fielding runs above average (FRAA) rate him as a below average defender, and his overall WARP has him at 0.4. The bat will have to keep playing for him to bring value.
That brings up an interesting dilemma for the Pirates. They entered Monday 28-24, five games off the division lead and 1.5 for the second wild card. PECOTA had the Pirates with a projected 77 wins to start the season and a 15.2 percent chance at the playoffs, they’re now up to 81.6 wins and 18.5 percent playoff odds.
They haven’t been bad enough to experiment with players and try to be more productive for future years but they’re not bad enough to give up on 2018. That’s led to David Freese playing third base every start against all 11 left-handed pitcher’s the Pirates have played against.
From a win now standpoint, it makes sense. Freese has hit .299/.376/.456 against southpaws in his career and Moran will be getting the left-on-left matchup. The goal is to win every time out, and putting Freese in against left-handed pitching helps that, and you’re also getting a better defender at third (8.9 FRAA the last 3 years).
But at the same time you’re stunting the development of the 25-year-old third baseman that was the center piece in the Cole trade. Going forward David Freese won’t be on the roster, he has a $6 million team option for 2019, his age 36 season. Moran will be called upon to start and hit against left-handed pitching.
Moran, in his professional career, has done the following against left-handed pitching in both the minors and the majors:
Nothing disastrous, and he’s shown good bat to ball contact like he has done throughout his career. The increase in power last year comes from both the swing adjustments and playing in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League. He hasn’t been disastrous, he’s just not gotten the opportunity in the big leagues yet.
Moran will likely never be an above average bat against left handed-pitching, but the development still needs to occur. Using the splits projector from Razzball Freese projects with a .260/.357/.411 slash and Moran a .240/.302/.346 slash against lefties. Freese projects much better, and with the Pirates still hanging just below the 20 percent mark for the playoffs depending on the system (Fangraphs has 18.2 percent and Five Thirty Eight has 16 percent), they still have a (small) shot at the playoffs.
With the Pirates close, at least still this early on, Moran will likely continue to get limited reps against lefties. That helps the Pirates now, getting Freese in their to help win in 2018, but their ceiling remains a wild card contender who won’t make a deep run in the playoffs.
That leaves a problem for the future though, where Moran will be the starter for at least the next five years after this one. The limited reps could present a challenge in years beyond. It’s fine for Freese to get playing time, especially against pitchers he normally hits well, but at some point Moran needs to see playing time against the southpaws.
*Numbers before games played May 28 and from Baseball Prospectus and Baseball-Reference