Third base was a problem area for the Pirates when Frank Coonelly and company took over after the 2007 season. Jose Bautista was highly touted, but had cobbled together years of .235, .254, and .242 in 2006-08 with marginal power for a corner infielder in Pittsburgh.
So when they swung their mega deal with Jay Bay before the 2008 trade deadline, they made sure to grab a third sacker; he was even more highly touted prospect Andy LaRoche. Off went Bautista to Toronto, where he astounded the baseball world by clobbering home runs ala the Bambino.
They also snagged a power-hitting corner player with the second pick of the 2008 draft from Vandy, Pedro Alvarez. The FO also had a left-over #1 draft pick from 2004, Pine-Richland's Neil Walker, riding an up-and-down career at Indy and in the second season of transition from catching to third base.
Well, it took a bit to sort out, but in 2011, they do have a guy on the corner whose bat plays the position in Pedro. And after a game of musical chairs that Mother Goose would be proud to call her own, they also got a guy whose bat plays at second with The Pittsburgh Kid.
As for the third wheel, LaRoche, well, he's trying to reestablish himself, now as an infield utility guy in Oakland.
Alvarez looks like he'll hold the fort at third for the time being; it's easier to find a big bopper first baseman. But he'll move to first, probably sooner rather than later.
His arm is first rate, and Alvarez is beginning to show some range to his left. But too many balls up the line, bouncers off his mitt and his bulky body make his long-term employment at the position problematic. 17 errors, a .938 FA and -8.6 UZR/150 are not numbers that a ground-ball heavy staff can long survive behind them.
And while a switch by the Kid to third would shore up the Pirates in the short run, the FO feels that Walker is better suited to play second in the longer view. Certainly his bat is solid middle infield material, and considering that 2010 was OJT for him at the position, it's possible that he'll show a jump in field performance in 2011.
The Pirates have three non-roster corner infielders, Andy Marte, Josh Fields and Garrett Atkins, who will duke it out for the backup role and a spot on the 40-man roster.
Both Marte and Fields are former top prospects that have never lived up to their clippings. Atkins was released by Baltimore halfway through a 2010 season that was a disaster at the dish (see Pirate; First Base post for more.)
Forget the minors. When Pedro and the Kid got their calls to the show, Indy had to scuffle to find players for third; Jimmy Negrych, Aki Iwamura and whoever raised their hand manned the position. Hitting machine Josh Harrison handled the spot at Altoona, but his bat profiles as a middle infielder, not a corner guy.
Right now, 20 year old Dominican Eric Avila, who hit 7 GCL homers in 2010, is the best prospect at the position. 21 year old Venezuelan Elevys Gonzalez showed some promise at West Virginia, but his bat profiles for the middle infield, which he has played quite often. Both he and Harrison have the look of MLB utility guys.
Jeremy Farrell is also a borderline candidate; he had a .298/9/43 slash at Bradenton, but at 24 is old for the league and doesn't flash the power that a third sacker should exhibit.
Help may come from the upcoming draft. The Bucs have the numero uno pick, and it's thought that the alpha dog is 20 year old third baseman Anthony Rendon of Rice. There are a couple of tempting college pitchers floating near the top, too, but the Pirates seem well stocked in young arms; they need a couple of everyday players now.
So in 2011, the Pirates have third base covered in Pittsburgh and are bare in the upper levels. If Pedro plays fewer than 150 games for any reason, the Bucs are going to scuffle to fill the hole.