If you have ever played third base in your life — professional, college, high school, slow pitch softball — then the Pittsburgh Pirates might be contacting you soon to give you a look at the position in their minor league system. Or at least that’s the way it seems this year.
Over the last few weeks, the Pirates have been trying several 2014 draft picks and other prospects at third base. These are guys who seemingly had no shot at playing the position prior to this year. The players include first round competitive balance pick Connor Joe, third round pick Jordan Luplow, and 26th round pick Jerrick Suiter. All three were drafted as outfielders, and specifically announced as right fielders. That led to the question on draft day: What would the Pirates do with all of these right fielders at the same level? Apparently the answer was “see which one can play third base.”
All three hitters have been taking ground balls at third and getting work at the position. But this move isn’t out of nowhere. Joe and Luplow, the two highest profile guys who have been getting work at third, both played the position in high school.
“[Pirates’ Minor League Infield Coordinator Gary Green] and [Pirates’ Farm Director Larry Broadway] saw that I played in high school, and they said ‘let’s take a shot.’ They’ve been working with me, and I’ve been thankful that they’re giving me this opportunity to help out the organization, go to third base, and see what happens,” Luplow said.
Luplow went to college as a third baseman, but a shoulder injury led to Fresno State coaches moving him to the outfield to limit the amount of throws he would have to make.
“At heart, he’s an infielder, and we knew that going into the draft,” Broadway said. “He worked in the off-season taking ground balls again, and getting back over there. He looks good. Anytime you can get a guy to play well on the dirt, you’re going to keep him there versus having him in the outfield.”
The Pirates are taking the same approach with Joe, getting him work at both corner infield spots. Some of that is due to his back injury, which delayed the plans for him to get work behind the plate, possibly for good. But Joe’s bat would be much more valuable at third base than any other position he could play. He also hasn’t played third base since high school, so he’s working on picking the position back up.
“I played infield in college, so all of the fundamentals are the same,” Joe said. “It’s just getting the footwork down, and getting my legs back into it.”
One challenge comes with his back injury, which will likely delay the start of his season and keep him in extended Spring Training.
“It’s more just getting his feet under him right now, volume and everything,” Broadway said. “He’s lost so much time. We’re building that up slow and steady, and we’ll see what the best spot is for him.”
The delay for Joe solves the problem of how the playing time will be split up in West Virginia at the start of the season. Broadway said that Luplow will get the bulk of the playing time at third base to start the year. If this scenario sounds familiar — drafting an athletic outfielder and moving him to a valuable infield spot the following season — then it should. It’s the same thing the Pirates did with JaCoby Jones last year, drafting him as an outfielder in 2013 and moving him to shortstop. In a way, they did the same with Wyatt Mathisen. He played mostly infield in high school, but was drafted as a catcher due to a lack of depth, and when the team added other catching options, Mathisen was moved to third base, where there was a shortage of prospects.
“The big reason why those guys were drafted was because of their bats,” Broadway said about drafting Luplow and Joe last year. “The bats play, they’re major league bats. Knowing that they’re both athletic, the discussion we had, we could move them around when we get them. Let’s get the bat in, let’s find a way to get the bat going, and then see where the best position is on the field once we get our hands on them.”
It’s also not a new process for the Pirates to try people at multiple positions in order to add versatility. Back in 2009 they had Josh Harrison, Chase d’Arnaud, and Jordy Mercer on the same team in High-A. Harrison rotated between second and third, Mercer rotated between shortstop and third, and d’Arnaud rotated between shortstop and second base.
“If you look at what we have in the big leagues, when Harrison came up, he played all three positions in the infield,” Gary Green said. “Mercer did the same thing. When we had d’Arnaud, he did the same thing. All of those guys are good players. Mercer is now at shortstop, but in the minor leagues he played some second and some third. Harrison did the same thing. The more versatility you can have, the easier it makes it for a Major League manager.”
But this situation is a bit different, because the Pirates seem to be focusing on specific positions — third base, shortstop, and catcher. Those positions are difficult to fill. The Pirates have lacked depth at those positions over the last few years. The catching depth has really improved since Mathisen was drafted in 2012. The shortstop depth is starting to improve with additions like Jones, 2014 first round pick Cole Tucker, and the lack of a need anytime soon with Jordy Mercer in the majors. But the third base depth has been lacking, and the Pirates seem to be aggressively trying to fill that need.
“Anywhere, even in the free agent market, there are just not everyday free agent third basemen available,” Broadway said. “There are always outfielders, and you can always move guys to the outfield. There seems to be always first basemen. When you look at that left side of the infield, it’s tough to go buy them anywhere, so you have to develop them. Any chance you can to do that, we’re going to try to do that.”
Mathisen will move up to Bradenton this year as the starting third baseman. Luplow will get most of the playing time in West Virginia. Chase Simpson could also factor into the mix, along with Jerrick Suiter. Connor Joe will eventually get time at third base when he returns.
Then there’s the addition of Edward Salcedo in the upper levels. The Pirates added him in a minor trade this off-season, sending minor league pitcher Bryton Trepagnier to the Braves. Salcedo has played third base in the past, but his career hit a snag in Double-A, and the Braves moved him to right field. The Pirates will have Eric Wood and Dan Gamache as options at third, with Wood getting the priority. But Salcedo has been working at third, and should get work at the position, while also getting time at first and in right field.
“Another guy that we liked the bat in the past,” Broadway said. “We like the athleticism. He kind of stalled out with the Braves, so it will be a good change of scenery for us. Right now we’re just getting to know him. Our most valuable position is third base, so we’re going to go from there and see what we think.”
The Pirates might not have a lot of top third base prospects right now, but they have a lot of prospects who are turning into options at third base. Their plan is to draft good hitters who are athletic, and hope that the bat plays as expected, and the athleticism allows the player to stick at the position. If they do this enough times, they’ll eventually end up with a good third base prospect or two, and maybe even a long-term option at the position.