Positional Breakdowns: Third Base

About a month ago I was at PNC Park for the Baseball Prospectus event, which included a Q&A session with Neal Huntington. In the Q&A session, Huntington was asked about moving Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates’ top prospect to first base. Huntington’s response was that, until someone stepped up as a proven major league third baseman, no one would be changing positions.

The Pirates have three main options at third base, although they still have a question mark at the position. Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates’ top prospect, has yet to play above AA ball, and while he’s projected to be a star, the Pirates would be foolish to sit and bank of that happening. Andy LaRoche, former Dodgers’ top prospect and the main piece in the Jason Bay trade, had his first full year in the majors in 2009, but didn’t lock down the spot. Neil Walker, former Pirates’ first round draft pick, not only has struggled at AAA with an on-base percentage below .300, but doesn’t seem to be in the plans, getting only 36 at-bats in his September call-up.
The positional battle really comes down to Alvarez and LaRoche, and rightfully so. If Neil Walker had been born anywhere other than Pittsburgh, he’d be getting the same consideration as Brian Bixler. Here is how the position breaks down for the Pirates:
The 2009 Season
Andy LaRoche didn’t do much to force a guaranteed position change for Pedro Alvarez in the future. The final line for LaRoche wasn’t horrible. He had a .258/.330/.401 line with 12 homers. That puts him in the bottom half offensively amongst third basemen in the majors in the 2009 season, although his defense helped make up for the lack of offense.
LaRoche ranked ninth in the majors in UZR this season. He wasn’t one of the elite players like Ryan Zimmerman or Chone Figgins, but he was above average with his fielding.
LaRoche had several stretches where he looked great in the 2009 season. After starting off with a .254/.310/.365 line in April, LaRoche hit for a .330/.411/.457 line in the month of May. LaRoche struggled the next three months, combining for a .214/.297/.336 line. However, he finished off strong, with a .313/.359/.552 line in September and October, and most importantly, he posted five homers and eight doubles in 96 at-bats.
The end of the season was encouraging, as LaRoche was not only hitting well, but he was also hitting for good power, with eight homers in his final 184 at-bats, a 23 AB/HR ratio. Ultimately LaRoche lacked consistency, and will have to do more than put up two great months next year if he wants to hold off Alvarez.
The Prospects
There’s only one prospect to consider here, and that’s Pedro Alvarez. Alvarez had a strong second half in his first season, with a .333/.419/.590 line in 222 at-bats in Altoona. He should start the 2010 season in Indianapolis, and if he has a season like he had in Altoona, we should see him in Pittsburgh by June.
There have been concerns over whether Alvarez can handle third base defensively. I saw Alvarez several times in Lynchburg, and wasn’t impressed, although the player I saw in the World Cup was a whole different person. It could be that when I saw Alvarez, his slow reactions were due to rust, as he didn’t play for almost a year before making his debut with the Hillcats this year.
This winter, Alvarez is set to begin a workout program, designed to lose some weight. That will surely help his chances at sticking at third base, and could improve his reaction times and range. It would also help if the Pirates kept Perry Hill around.
The Future
Before the 2009 season there was a lot of talk that Pedro Alvarez could move to first if Andy LaRoche was successful at the position. After the 2009 season I don’t think there’s anything that will keep Alvarez from third base, unless LaRoche carries his 2009 September success over to the 2010 season and becomes a .300/25 HR hitter.
A lot of talk recently has been on LaRoche moving to second once Alvarez arrives. I could see this happening as an alternative if Delwyn Young doesn’t work out at second base next year. LaRoche also looks a lot better at second base with his current offensive numbers. Only 12 second basemen in the majors hit more homers than LaRoche this year. LaRoche would go from being in the bottom half of the major league third basemen to the top half of the major league second basemen, just on a position switch alone.
Next year will be a game of musical chairs, and the music ends when Alvarez gets the call. Andy LaRoche, Delwyn Young, Jeff Clement, and a few other players will be circling the two chairs at first and second base. Their performance will determine who gets a seat and who is booted from the game, because one thing seems to be certain: Pedro Alvarez owns the chair at third base.
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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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