One of the big themes I’ve talked about with the Pittsburgh Pirates and their farm system has been the total lack of a third base prospect. Pedro Alvarez is a Scott Boras client, which means you can forget about a future extension, and pretty much wait for him to hit free agency following the 2016 season. And since the Pirates don’t have an internal option, that’s going to raise a question about who could be the starting third baseman in 2017.
A lot can happen between now and then. They could have a prospect break out in the minors. Just for perspective, Gregory Polanco is a breakout prospect expected to arrive in the majors in mid-2014. He broke out in West Virginia in 2012. By comparison, to get a guy on the same timeline to replace Alvarez, the Pirates would need a breakout player at third base this season, with that guy speeding through the upper levels. Or they’d need to draft a good hitting college third baseman who could eventually start, and that might be tough with the position they’re drafting in.
Back in November, I recapped the 2013 third base position, and talked about the lack of options the Pirates have for the future. In that article, I talked about a way they could get creative:
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.
Today we learned that the Pirates will be moving Mathisen to third base during the upcoming season. As I wrote in the article back in November, this still might not help their situation once Alvarez is gone. Mathisen needs to break out in West Virginia this year. He needs to hit in Bradenton and Altoona in 2015, just like the route Polanco took this past year. And he needs to be ready for the majors after one season in Indianapolis in 2016. Basically, there’s no room for error with Mathisen if he’s expected to take over for Alvarez immediately after the 2016 season.
But what about taking over at third base in the future? If you’re not focused on immediately replacing Alvarez in 2017, and you focus on Mathisen eventually making it to the majors as a starting third baseman, then the picture looks different. Suddenly the question isn’t “can Mathisen make it by 2017?”, but instead becomes “can Mathisen make it?” I think he can.
Defensively, the move to third base shouldn’t be hard for Mathisen. He was drafted as a catcher, but he was so athletic in high school that his coach used him more at shortstop than catcher. The Pirates saw some of those games at catcher and liked the potential. This was back when Tony Sanchez was struggling, before Reese McGuire was drafted, and when Jin-De Jhang was trying to slim down to have the chance at a long-term future behind the plate. The Pirates were looking for another catching prospect, and Mathisen looked like a good project.
You could argue that he might also be a good project at shortstop, since he played the position in high school. However, a lot of pro athletes once played shortstop in high school. Steve Pearce played shortstop in high school. That’s because the best athletes usually play that position. Most high school shortstops don’t stick at the position in the pros. A lot of them move to third base or second base. The move to third base usually comes if they grow out of the shortstop position. The move to second base comes if they lack the arm strength and glove for the left side of the infield.
Mathisen doesn’t really have the body to be a shortstop anymore, but he could cut it as a third baseman. The move might be easier for him than catching, considering the background. He had more experience in the infield during high school, and playing third base should be easier than playing shortstop. He wasn’t bad behind the plate, but he was raw, and needed work to stick at the position for the long-term. He’ll need work at third base, but you could argue that the work might be easier than behind the plate, since he has more experience in the infield.
The bat is going to be very important for Mathisen, and is going to be the key to his ability to move quickly through the system. He was rated with a strong bat coming out of the draft, but that didn’t show up in 2013. That could be due to his labrum tear. Mathisen has shown the ability to hit for average, with good plate patience and a good on-base percentage. He hasn’t hit for a lot of power, but has some projection there for the future. He’s a little raw offensively, but there’s a lot to like with his bat, even at a corner position. In the 2014 Prospect Guide, where we had Mathisen ranked 21st in the system, I wrote this about the catching log-jam:
One solution for the Pirates could be moving Mathisen to a different position. He’s athletic enough that he could move to shortstop, or third base. Both are organizational needs just as much as catcher, only there’s no McGuire type prospect at third base in the minor league system. Mathisen makes great contact with the potential to hit for power and a great approach at the plate. Offensively, he could handle a move to a different position.
I’ve always seen that offensive potential as good enough to carry him to the majors. I don’t think he’ll have any more difficulty defensively at third base than he would have at catcher. So as to the question of whether Mathisen can make it to the majors as a third baseman, I think he can — and he’s now the top prospect at the position in the system. I just think it might be a stretch to see him up in 2017 to replace Alvarez.
Links and Notes
**The 2014 Prospect Guide is in stock on the products page of the site. The book features profiles, scouting reports, and grades on every player in the minor league system, including our top 50 prospects. The Prospect Guide has been mentioned as a resource several times on the Pirates’ broadcast, and has been purchased as a source of reference by opposing MLB front office members, opposing scouts, and media members. If it’s a good resource for them, it’s a good resource for you. You can order your Prospect Guide on the products page of the site.