BRADENTON, Fla. – The Pirates appear to have an open competition at third base this spring between Colin Moran and Jung Ho Kang. Moran was the starter last year in his rookie season, while Kang was the starter prior to his visa issues before the 2017 season.

It’s hard to say right now which third baseman will win the competition. A lot of that will depend on whether Moran can tap into his raw power and put up numbers similar to the final two months of last year, and/or how close Kang can get to his 2015/16 production.

In the long-term, this battle won’t matter. Whoever wins the third base job out of Spring Training will essentially be keeping the position warm for the Pirates’ top hitting prospect: Ke’Bryan Hayes.

Hayes is in big league camp this year, but without a chance to make the roster. He’s going to need time in Indianapolis before he gets the call, as he has yet to play above Double-A. But if his performance in Triple-A is anything like what we saw in Altoona this past year, and if the third base options in Pittsburgh aren’t working out, then we could see Hayes in the majors in 2019.

In my monthly feature at Baseball America, I wrote about how Hayes saw a power increase due to added strength. He was able to fully recover from a cracked rib suffered at the end of the 2016 season, which led to weight loss and sapped his power in 2017. He regained some muscle the following offseason, and the results in 2018 were much better.

The results in 2018 propelled him to being one of the top 100 prospects in the game, ranked 49th overall by Baseball America. It also led to Hayes playing in the Double-A All-Star game and MLB’s Future’s Game.

“That was a big highlight of my year, and to be able to hit a home run there was awesome,” Hayes said of the Future’s Game. “I had my dad and mom in the stands, so that was very awesome.”

The step forward was encouraging, as the Pirates need a long-term third base option, and Hayes is their best bet. The encouraging thing to me was that Hayes feels the power is already there in his early work this year, and possibly taking another step forward.

“This year the ball feels really good coming off the bat,” Hayes said. “Not even really having to swing ultra hard and muscle up. I’m just feeling real good and healthy.”

Hayes already has a bit of a natural lift to the ball, and worked to stay on his back side more last year. That helped him attack the inside pitch and pull the ball to the left-field gap for more power. The added strength only helped to give him more solid contact.

It wouldn’t take much offense for Hayes to become a starting third baseman in the majors. He’s got the best defense at third in the system, and some of the best in the minors. He’s shown a good ability to hit for contact, control the strike zone, and add some value on the bases.

That kind of profile, even without the power, can amount to a league average third baseman. The exciting thing about the power boost is that it could help propel Hayes into an above-average starter at third. And if his power increase continues in 2019, and carries over to the majors, then they could see an impact player at third base in their future.

I’m not sure I would expect much from Hayes in 2019, just as I wouldn’t put big expectations on any rookie. The hope for 2019 will largely be on one of Colin Moran or Jung Ho Kang. But the most interesting third base story to follow in the system will be Hayes and his progress in Triple-A, as that will give a good indication of the future for the Pirates. If he continues the current progression, then there’s no one that will stand in his way from being the third baseman of the future.

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