Saturday, October 17, 2009

Pirates by Position: Third Base

The hot corner should be beaucoup interesting come June. Andy LaRoche, 26, who has flashed some brilliant leather but less-than-inspiring lumber, is the easy choice to start 2010 at third.

His red-hot September - he hit .340/3/12 with a .660 slugging percentage and 1.012 OPS in the last four weeks of the season - washed away some of the bad taste of a pedestrian .258/12/64 2009 season at the dish.

His turnaround coincided with a move to the second spot in the order. LaRoche's boffo finish may be due to the hidden vigorish, or it may be that the move up the lineup shortened up his swing when he switched from the free-swinging six hole to a plate setting role.

His main challenger of last year, Pine-Richland's first rounder of 2004, Neil Walker, didn't get his call to the show until September, and produced little (.194/0/8 in 17 games) in the few opportunities that he was given.

Walker, 24, shouldn't be written off just yet, although he may end up a super utility guy rather than an everyday third baseman. He's been limited by inconsistency at the dish in the minors and the suits' desire to stick with LaRoche, the only producing piece of the Jay Bay deal, through thick and thin.

And hey, if Ryan Doumit packs his bags this winter, it wouldn't surprise us to see Walker return to his original spot behind the plate. Remember Doumit's career path?

The wild card is the future Franchise, 22 year-old Pedro Alvarez, the Pirate's Minor League Hitter of the Year. The big guy showed that he was worth the aggravation of dealing with Scott Boras when he hit .288/27/95 between Lynchburg and Altoona, and added another handful of bombs while a member of the US World Cup championship squad.

At 6-3, 235 pounds, Alvarez reported to the Pirates in 2008 as the clone of the Pillsbury Dough Boy. He's shaped up some since, but grace in action is not his calling card. Still, we expect to see him play 2010 at the hot corner; whether his bulk and footwork will keep him there or move him across the infield is a question we think will be addressed in 2011.

It's a given that he'll show up, Andrew McCutchen-like, sometime after a call to the show won't prematurely start his service clock, and no one can have any qualms about that.

And that will cause some shake up. When he arrives, El Toro will play. The chain reaction will bump LaRoche, probably to second if Delwyn Young can't master the spot. And we'll have another regular-season training camp situation. Dang, and no Perry Hill; good luck to his successor.

Ramon Vazquez will remain as the MLB back-up; the vet started nine games and appeared in 14 at third in 2009. Behind him, there's nada on the horizon.

Bobby Spain, 24, broke his wrist and missed half the season, and he's more of a Delwyn Young - Jimmy Negrych guy at best, a good hitter without a lot of pop or enough glove to claim a spot. He's another potential utility guy, with a ticking clock.

Jeremy Farrell, 22, was drafted 8th out of Virginia in 2008, but a .248 average and just five homers at West Virginia has dimmed his star. He's also leather-challenged; the Pirates are considering moving him to first base.

The top gun may be prime shortstop prospect Jordy Mercer, 23. He hit 10 homers and drove in 83 runs for Lynchburg, and saw some time at third base as he's on the same track as Chase d'Arnaud, a better-fielding SS prospect from the same class.

Jarek Cunningham, 19, was drafted out of high school in 2008, and batted .328 with five home runs and 22 RBIs in 148 at-bats at Bradenton.

But he had ACL surgery, and lost the 2009 season. He played quite a bit at third for the baby Bucs because of the knee in 2008, and it's tough to project where he'll end up until his knee is tested. They've penciled him in at second for the winter league.

Mercer and Cunningham are like many of the Pirate infield prospects. The suits are moving them around to see where they fit in the future scheme; they place a much higher value on versatility than the old regime did.

A youngster entering the system in 2010 that has shown some promise is 19 year-old Dominican prospect Eric Avila. He was signed at 16, and spent the last three years in the DSL. He hit .315/9/50 last year, and should pop up with Bradenton or State College this coming season.

CONTRACTUAL ISSUES: Vazquez is signed for 2010. Andy LaRoche is out of options and becomes arbitration-eligible in 2011. The rest are comfortably under team control.

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