It’s hard to call the third base position a “battle”, especially since the Pirates have pretty much said that Andy LaRoche will get the first shot over Neil Walker. So there really is not much to talk about, except maybe “are the Pirates making the right call giving LaRoche the first shot?”
One could point to the horrible results that LaRoche has shown in the majors thus far (.184/.286/.272 in 316 major league at bats) and say that LaRoche hasn’t earned the starting role. I would agree with that. I’d also point to the .242/.278/.414 season that Walker posted at AAA in 2008 to say that Walker doesn’t deserve the starting role. So now that we know each player is equally deserving (or undeserving) of the role, how do we make our decision?
The first thought would be based on Spring Training numbers. I’m not a fan of basing any decisions off of Spring Training numbers. Not only are these numbers a product of 40-50 at bats, but they are 40-50 at bats against guys who could be bagging groceries in a month. So while Andy LaRoche is lighting up Spring Training with a .556 batting average, that doesn’t mean much to me.
The next thing we could look at would be the status of the two players. LaRoche is two years older than Walker, and is also out of options, while Walker has three options. If the Pirates were to go ahead and start LaRoche in the majors, they could give Walker starting time at AAA, where he could attempt to improve on last year’s .242 average and .692 OPS. If the Pirates wanted to start Walker in the majors, they would be forced to bench LaRoche, or risk losing him to waivers.
By reducing LaRoche’s playing time the Pirates would be reducing his chances of improvement. This would essentially be putting all of their eggs in Walker’s basket. And if they kept LaRoche in the majors, that would potentially be eliminating a spot for a guy like Andy Phillips or Craig Monroe. By giving LaRoche the first shot, the Pirates could give Walker playing time in AAA, giving him time to improve incase LaRoche doesn’t work out, and giving the Pirates an extra spot on the major league roster for a guy like Phillips or Monroe.
The numbers LaRoche put up with the Pirates after the trade deadline last year were far from encouraging (.152/.224/.232 in 164 ABs). That being said, that time period was the first time in his career that LaRoche was an everyday starter. He was also battling a thumb injury, which has been cited by many as the reason for his struggles. That doesn’t turn a .152 hitter in to a .300 hitter, but it is enough to give him another shot.
Overall, the Pirates have their third baseman of the future in Pedro Alvarez. Alvarez could be ready to go for the 2010 season, but that doesn’t make this year’s battle between LaRoche and Walker pointless. If one of these two pans out, the Pirates could move Alvarez to first base, filling the spot that could be left vacant by Adam LaRoche, who is a free agent after this season.