Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Season Recap: Third Base

Pedro Alvarez has become one of the best power hitters in the majors, and has improved his defense at third base. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Pedro Alvarez has become one of the best power hitters in the majors, and has improved his defense at third base. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

When Pedro Alvarez was drafted in 2008, the view was that he would eventually become a power hitting third baseman who would eventually anchor the middle of the lineup with a ton of power. He hasn’t emerged as a star, but Alvarez has provided the power. He’s also answered some questions about whether he can stick at third base, at least in the short-term.

Alvarez finished the 2013 season with a .233/.296/.473 line, along with 36 homers in 614 plate appearances. He was a three true outcomes player, although his 7.8% walk rate wasn’t as high as most three true outcome players. The power was impressive, and gave him a ton of value in the middle of the lineup, even if his 30% strikeout rate was frustrating to watch. Alvarez led all NL third baseman in home runs, and finished second among all MLB third baseman, behind Miguel Cabrera.

Looking beyond third base, Alvarez has emerged as one of the best home run hitters in the majors over the last two seasons. In the last two years, only four players have hit more home runs than Alvarez. Those players are Cabrera (88), Chris Davis (86), Edwin Encarnacion (78), and Adam Dunn (75). Alvarez has 66, which is tied with Adrian Beltre, Alfonso Soriano, and Mark Trumbo during that span.

One big thing about the 2013 season for Alvarez was his defense. For the first time in his career he posted positive defensive value at third base. There were a lot of errors, but there were also a lot of really difficult plays that were made, including the charging, bare-handed grab and throw across the diamond that Alvarez makes on a routine basis. His UZR/150 was -0.4, which ranked tenth among 20 qualified third basemen.

Overall, Alvarez had a 3.1 WAR, which ranked ninth out of 21 qualified third basemen. His numbers would have been higher if he would have been part of a platoon. Alvarez had a .249/.310/.532 line in 467 plate appearances against right-handers, with 33 of his 36 homers. Against lefties he had a .180/.252/.286 line in 147 plate appearances. To put the left-hander line in perspective, Clint Barmes had a .211/.249/.309 line this season, which is better than the numbers Alvarez posted against lefties.

The idea of platooning Alvarez isn’t popular, because people can’t separate his good performances from his bad performances. If you bring up the platoon, the response is usually negative over suggesting the benching of a 36 home run player. In a platoon, Alvarez would still have 33 homers, and you’d still get those other three from the guy hitting lefties. In fact, you’d get more than just those three homers, improving the overall production at third base. As an example, Jordy Mercer only had 89 plate appearances against lefties this year, but hit four homers during that span. If you platoon Alvarez and someone like Mercer, you might get 40 home runs from the third base position, plus an OPS well over .800.

Even though it makes sense, it still might be hard to sell the idea, since most people only look at the overall stat line and don’t look at the splits. If you do look at the splits, then you’ll see that Alvarez is not improving against lefties. There have been plenty of players who would have already been moved to a platoon role at this point in their careers. The Pirates are getting great production from third base about 75% of the time. A platoon could help them improve the production from that position the other 25% of the time.

The Future

The future at third base hasn’t really changed in the last year. In fact, here was my summary in last year’s recap.

The Pirates have Alvarez under team control through the 2016 season. He’s a Scott Boras client, so an extension or a return as a free agent would be unlikely. That means the Pirates have four years to develop a third base prospect, or acquire one through the draft or trade. That’s a lot of time, but it doesn’t feel that way considering the lack of potential options in the minors.

The only thing that has changed from that summary is that the Pirates now have three years to develop a third baseman. They still don’t have any good options in the minors. Eric Wood is the only promising third base prospect, and he didn’t have the best season this year, with a .255/.314/.360 line in 364 at-bats in West Virginia.

The Pirates could get creative and move Wyatt Mathisen to third base. Mathisen is a catcher, but missed a lot of time last year due to a small labrum tear. The injury didn’t require surgery, and it’s hard to say how that will impact his arm strength going forward. Prior to the injury, Mathisen had a strong arm, and has previously played shortstop, so he should be able to handle third. The biggest impact the injury had was that it allowed Reese McGuire and Jin-De Jhang to catch up with Mathisen in West Virginia. The Pirates will either have to hold one of Jhang or Mathisen back in Jamestown, push someone up to Bradenton, or change positions. If they change positions, the best candidate would be Mathisen, and third base would make a lot of sense due to the organizational need.

Even if the Pirates move Mathisen, they don’t have a strong option at third base. The only way they might replace Alvarez internally after the 2016 season is if they draft a third baseman in the first round next year, then watch him ascend to the majors in a year and a half. The timeline is tight for Mathisen as well, since he would have to start hitting immediately in West Virginia next year, move to Bradenton by the end of 2014, get to Indianapolis by the end of 2015, and be ready for the majors after the 2016 season. That’s a lot of developing for a high school player.

At this point, an internal solution at third seems unlikely. Fortunately, the Pirates have improved as a destination for free agents. I don’t think they’ll be able to get Alvarez back, since a third baseman with his power will command a lot on the open market. They might be able to find a legitimate starter if Alvarez goes elsewhere. Or, if there is no free agent available, they could make a trade from the farm system for a replacement. They could also make a trade between now and the end of the 2016 season for a prospect that could eventually take over at third.

Alvarez is still under team control for three more seasons, and the Pirates would be smart to keep him until he becomes a free agent if they remain contenders through that span. It’s probably not time to panic about the future of the position, even if there is a lack of internal options. Their top farm system and their emergence as contenders opens up some possibilities in the future, so that they don’t have to rely on developing a third baseman in the next three seasons.

Author: 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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