Over the last few years, the Pittsburgh Pirates have unveiled an interesting draft strategy. They have been focusing on athletic hitters with good bats, with the hope of tapping into that athleticism and having the player switch to a more valuable position where his bat will play better.
This happened in 2012 when they drafted Wyatt Mathisen and moved him behind the plate. After getting depth at the catcher position, they moved him to third base, which is the weakest position in the Pirates’ farm system.
In 2013 they took JaCoby Jones, who played mostly center field and second base in college. Jones was a shortstop in high school, and the Pirates wanted to try him out at the position again, hoping to get a power hitting shortstop out of the experiment. He is currently at shortstop in Bradenton, and looks like he has the tools to stick at the position.
Last year they took the same approach with Jordan Luplow. He was drafted as a right fielder, but was moved this spring to third base. That’s an interesting move for him. He has good hitting tools, but they profile much better at third base than the outfield. The big question is whether he can play third base.
Just like Jones, Luplow was a guy who played his new position before. He played third base in high school, but was moved off the position to the outfield in college after suffering a shoulder injury. Fresno State coaches felt he’d be better in the outfield, where he wouldn’t be throwing as frequently. The Pirates felt that he should have another shot at the infield, especially with third base being such a weak spot in the organization.
I watched Luplow a lot during Spring Training in his limited time playing, although he missed a bit of time with a minor shoulder issue. My first real look at him in games that matter came two weeks ago in West Virginia. He didn’t have the best series, with a few wild throws and some poor fielding work at times.
West Virginia manager Brian Esposito is familiar with Luplow, having managed him in Jamestown last year. However, he only saw him in the outfield, up until this season. So he was able to give some insight on how Luplow can carry his skills from the outfield to the infield.
“It’s a hard transition,” Esposito said of the move to third. “He knows how to take things away from people in the outfield. Last year he was good at cutting balls off in the gap and throwing people out at second. He was good at playing things off the wall and throwing people out trying to advance. Taking runners out trying to score from second base. He’s in some unfamiliar territory right now, where he’s trying to find ways to learn defensively how to take things away from hitters.”
Esposito said that the biggest struggle right now for Luplow is consistent positioning.
“He’s still uncomfortable out there,” Esposito said. “It takes a lot of reps. It’s like anything else. You move to an unfamiliar territory, it’s going to take you a while.”
The West Virginia infield surface has never been the best in the Pirates’ system. In fact, for years it had been the worst of the full-season teams. Earlier this month I talked to Bradenton manager Michael Ryan about this. Ryan managed West Virginia last year, and noted that the poor infield surface forced JaCoby Jones to improve his routes and improve charging the ball.
The surface received an upgrade this year, but Esposito said that the grass still plays a bit slow. This means that Luplow has a bigger challenge on slow choppers or balls that he has to charge, needing more time to make the play.
As for his throws, I saw some mixed results while I was in West Virginia. On one throw, Luplow sailed a ball over the first baseman’s head. Then there were other throws where he fell short, skipping them in the dirt. He looks like he has a good enough arm to make the throw from third, but consistency is a key. I talked with a few scouts who said he needs to improve his footwork and set up in order to improve the accuracy of his throws and the consistency with fielding the ball.
I should note that when I saw Luplow, West Virginia had a strange schedule. They were sharing the field with Marshall’s baseball team. The early morning college games prevented the Power from taking fielding practice the entire series. That’s important for a guy like Luplow, who is making the transition to a new spot. Esposito said that his daily prep work is the most important part of his game right now.
It’s still early for Luplow. Last year I heard a lot of mixed reports on whether Jones would stick at shortstop. He has since shown a lot of improvements, and looks more comfortable at the position after a year and two months of pro ball. Luplow only has two months under his belt. There is still time for improvement, and the Pirates seem intent on giving him every opportunity to improve at the position. Right now the results are rocky, and that has also carried over to the offensive side of his game, with a .683 OPS on the season. Jones went through similar struggles last year, with a .752 OPS in the first three months, and a .980 OPS from July to the end of the season.
Just like last year with Jones, I’d expect Luplow to remain in West Virginia all year. There isn’t a spot for him in Bradenton with Mathisen at the level, so he probably wouldn’t move up even if he was playing well. That gives him plenty of time to focus on his defense, with the chance that he could go on a faster track in the future if everything starts to click.