BRADENTON, Fl. – A year ago, the Pirates were trying out Connor Joe and Jordan Luplow at third base in Spring Training. Neither player had played the position since high school, with three years of college and half a season of pro ball at other positions. The question was, where would they play each guy, with both starting at the same level?
That didn’t turn into an issue. Joe was recovering from a back injury that he suffered in 2014, and that caused him to miss the start of the season. When he returned, the Pirates had him playing first base to ease him back into the game. That gave Luplow the chance to be the regular third baseman in West Virginia.
Both have been practicing at third again this year, and both are moving up to Bradenton. That creates the same problem of splitting playing time. But once again, an injury from the previous season will solve this issue.
Jordan Luplow went on the disabled list last August with a shoulder injury to his non-throwing shoulder. It turned out that he had a partially torn labrum, and needed surgery in the off-season to get it repaired. The timeline for his return was 4-6 months, and he’s approaching month six now. But when I talked to Larry Broadway yesterday, he said that Luplow will miss the start of the season. That will make Joe the third baseman for the short-term, and the Pirates see him at third base going forward.
“We committed to third base,” Broadway said of Joe’s position. “Last year, we just needed to get the bat going again. Third base was going to be hard, we didn’t want to stress the throws too much, so we decided to get him at first base.”
Joe has been getting time at third base since the Fall Instructional League, and has been working there exclusively this spring, including getting extra reps in the backfields of Pirate City with Minor League Infield Coordinator Gary Green.
This spring has been much different for Joe than last year, as he’s now fully healed from his back injury, rather than the slow approach the team took in building him up last year.
“I’m just another guy out there,” Joe said of the difference. “I couldn’t feel better. I’m doing the conditioning test, and going through the rotations. It’s no restrictions, no limitations, no medical staff behind me, watching me at every rep. It feels good, feels free. Playing the game, I love it.”
Meanwhile, it looks like they’re going to be a bit more conservative than that six month return for Luplow. The good news is that the injury happened with his non-throwing shoulder, so it doesn’t impact him much on the field. The impact has been at the plate, where he’s been restricted in hitting. He just started hitting off live pitching the last two days for the first time.
“They’re starting to let me ramp it up a little bit, hit off live pitching, and just go from there based on how I feel,” Luplow said.
This should give Joe at least a month of being the regular third baseman in Bradenton until the Pirates have to make a decision on how to split up playing time between the two players.
On the offensive side, both guys fit a similar profile. They’re advanced hitters who don’t strike out often, and draw a good amount of walks. They’ve got the ability to hit for average, hit for gap power, and unlike other players who have been drafted with similar profiles in recent years, these two have a good ability for over-the-fence power.
Luplow had a good overall season last year, but when you look at his splits, the offense got really impressive at the end of the year. He had a .694 OPS through the end of June, then exploded for a .994 OPS in his final two months, while hitting eight homers in 176 at-bats.
“I think it was getting more comfortable at third,” Luplow said of the second half success. “The first half of the season, I was trying to figure out where to play, how to take ground balls and make the throw. It’s a lot different. Every throw from third is going to matter, unlike outfield where if you miss a cutoff and the guy doesn’t advance a base, it’s not an error. Every throw is important, and just getting my footwork right. I got a lot more comfortable in the second half, so hopefully I can carry that into the season.”
As for Joe, you once again have to look beyond the numbers to see the highlights. He had a .670 OPS, which isn’t what you’d want from a college hitter in Low-A ball. But he looked advanced at the plate, with a .366 OBP, and a 14% walk rate that was higher than his 11.7% strikeout rate. His swing is quick and smooth, and he can turn on an inside pitch quickly and show off some power potential. Seeing him live last year, and so far this year, the stats don’t match the offensive upside he has.
Part of the struggle might have been the long layoff from the back injury, and the lack of regular playing time when he returned. Another part might have been finally adjusting to pro ball from college.
“I [wasn’t] overmatched at all,” Joe said, acknowledging the strikeouts and walks. “I don’t feel like I did badly. Just learning the pro game and the pro style. Just getting into the routine. Learning how to play the game everyday. College is different. You play four games maybe a week, and this is different how you play everyday.”
The question in 2016 is whether learning third base will impact his offense early like it did with Luplow. Luplow said that his biggest challenge at third has been footwork and the throws. Specifically, he said it’s about learning to change direction to the bases he wants to throw to, and getting the momentum going in that direction. A lot of this has to do with adjusting to the speed of the game.
“It’s a different speed than high school,” Luplow said, referencing his previous experience at the position. “To go from high school to pro ball, that’s a huge jump. I played outfield all of college. It was a big jump at first.”
In this area, Joe might have an easier transition. Luplow played outfield all throughout college, but Joe played the infield at times, and played third base last year. It will still be an adjustment for him, but with more familiarity in the infield, he should have an easier transition than Luplow, which might not impact his numbers as much.
Both guys are very promising players, and their bats become extremely valuable to the organization if they can stick at third base, where there is little depth in the system in the upper levels (the top prospect at the position, Ke’Bryan Hayes, is a level below them). Their path at third is easier compared to the outfield, where there is no path to the majors when you factor in the current MLB squad, plus the top prospects already ahead of them. Joe will get the first shot at third base in Bradenton this year, and when Luplow returns, things will get interesting seeing how the Pirates handle the playing time at third base.