Continuing our look at the Pirates organization, it brings us to the corner positions where they have an abundance of talent in both the majors and minors.
Steve Pearce has picked up a lot of playing time at first base with Adam LaRoche's trade. I have always likened him to former Pirates Xavier Nady – a right-handed hitter who has shown good contact-making skills with high teens to low-twenties homerun/season power potential. Also, like Nady, he plays first and a sub-par right field. While Pearce is hitting just .231, it should be noted that he is striking out nearly 30|PERCENT| of the time after doing so just 17|PERCENT| of the time in the minors which is consistent with his career minor league 17|PERCENT| rate over almost 2000 minor league at-bats. In other words, he has shown better in the minors and in fact has shown better in the majors during his other call-ups. Pearce, to his credit, is has also been showing improved walk-drawing skills – over 11|PERCENT| in the minors and 12|PERCENT| in the majors. He is also showing the fly-ball tendencies one wants of a power-hitter. Combine all these skills together and it is possible that he could be more than a mere platoon player. In fact, while similar to Nady in many respects, Pearce has shown a higher level of skill in some ways, just not over an extended period at the MLB level.
At 26-years of age, however, Pearce's window of opportunity is right now. The Pirates are not going anywhere and would be well advised to keep giving him plenty of playing time to try to fully translate his skills to the majors as they may be well rewarded. Nady's, for example, big break in playing time did not come until he was 25 himself and he did not break truly experience a breakout until he was in his later twenties. Xavier Nady, however, had a luxury that Pearce does not – a lack of pressure behind him in the system until Adrian Gonzalez came along, but by then he shown enough skill to warrant a trade where he would continue being a starter.
Speaking of the pressure on Pearce, we come to Garrett Jones who has a similar question to Pearce that must be addressed – is he a stop-gap or a part of the Pirates' long-term plans? No one has ever denied Jones' power, but his prospect status had started to fizzle since moving on from the Twins organization and ostensibly the Pirates brought him as a minor league free agent for AAA roster filling purposes. Jones is now 28-years of age and has never shown a great deal of patience at the plate and in fact his performance at the MLB level right now ties his career high in walks at 9.4|PERCENT|. Not a bad mark, but not a great one, and one would expect that this to regress to his career norms especially once MLB hurlers make adjustments to him. The power is for real – he is someone who hits fly-balls over 40|PERCENT| of the time, but it is questionable as to whether he can keep up a 24|PERCENT| conversion rate of those into home runs. The one thing to keep in mind is that he is hitting .232 against lefties and .333 against righties. Jones appears to be peaking before our eyes and if used judiciously as a platoon hitter, he can thrive or at the very least be a valuable bat off the bench in the long-run. So in theory, Pearce and Jones make a nice stopgap combination for more complete all around players, but have the potential to be better than that.
As I mentioned in the catcher's entry, Jeff Clement is now apparently a full-time first basemen. As a key, if not the key component of the Ian Snell/Jack Wilson trade acquired by the Pirates, it can be expected that he will get a September call-up and will certainly push everyone else for playing time in the near future and it is possible that the Pirates may mandate that he deserves a long look ahead of Pearce. The Mariners had apparently soured on Clement early on as he was demoted when expected to at least win a DH/1B/C rotating gig this spring, but instead earned a ticket to the minors and hasn't been heard from since. Despite the demotion he has hit 21 home runs, 7 with Indianapolis and in terms of raw power he may match Jones. He also has a career of showing a higher level of plate discipline, walking over 10|PERCENT| of the time this year and 17|PERCENT| of the time last year and 11|PERCENT| for his minor league career. In previous seasons he had combined that skill with good contact making skills for a power hitter, striking out just 17|PERCENT| of the time, which combined with his plate discipline gave him a potential .300 hitter skill set. This season he has fallen off to over 20|PERCENT| and he has to prove he can get back to his previous level. So with Clement we have a hitter with a higher ceiling, but keep in mind that although it seems like he was only recently the number three overall pick, he is already 26 years of age and should have already established himself as a MLB hitter (though that is not entirely his fault). So Pearce and Jones are not the only hitters on the hot seat.
Andy LaRoche's acquisition last year looked like a great move as someone who had power on his resume along with excellent plate discipline and contact making skills. So far with the Pirates he has shown the patience, walking 10|PERCENT|of the time and has made solid contact, striking out just 16|PERCENT| of the time. The thunder is rather notably missing. One might knee-jerk think that his power was the product of playing in Las Vegas, but this is also the same guy who hit 21 home runs in the very pitcher friendly Florida State League in 2005 (plus another nine thereafter for Jacksonville). Perhaps, though, his swing has changed as his ground ball/fly ball ratios have been steady at a 1.4 while close to 50|PERCENT| of his balls in play have been ground balls and for each of the past three seasons he has had a disturbing trend with his fly ball rates, falling to a 33|PERCENT| this season – not a power hitter's mark. LaRoche has shown a lot in his past and has at least translated all of his other skills to the Majors and should get another chance, but he does have Pedro Alvarez on his heels. Right now I am hoping he is not the next Sean Burroughs and thankfully, there is actually some cause for hope, looking over the course of this season his fly ball rates have been on a dramatic rise of late while cutting his ground ball rates. The one other cause for concern is the way he handles righties – batting in the .250's while hitting over .300 against lefties. For now though I am more concerned about the power – if he can tap into it while maintaining his contact making skills, that platoon split could narrow substantially.
Neil Walker is technically between LaRoche and Alvarez at AAA, but at 25, has shown poor plate discipline and mediocre power, plus a history of injuries. I think it is somewhat safe to say he is going to be passed over in this organization. He does make good contact, but a .301 OBP is not going to cut it in the Majors. I would not be surprised to see him end up being a jack-of-all trades, utility player, playing catcher, third, first, and the outfield in a pinch, while having some power off the bench.
So getting to Alvarez who is in his first full professional season we find player living up to his billing with 23 home runs between A+ and AA ball. He has also shown some patience, walking 13|PERCENT| of the time in A+ and 11|PERCENT| of the time in AA. He does, however, strikeout close to 30|PERCENT| of the time (28|PERCENT|) and has an all or nothing approach going on here and his .335 batting average in AA is being sustained by an unworldly .427 BABIP. Of course this will regress and his current profile suggests more of a .250's hitter. Alvarez, however, is noted for his plus bat speed and at 22 years of age, he still has time to improve. One has to be impressed at how well he has handled advanced competition so quickly. The real question remaining is whether or not he sticks at third base in the long run. Regardless of where he plays, his bat will carry him and in all likelihood he will start next year in AAA and push his way into the lineup by mid-season, if not sooner if other options disappoint.
Worst case scenario, I believe, here is the Pirates end up with a bunch of platoon players and/poor decent depth with a best case scenario gives them good starters at the corners with the remainders fighting for outfield time and bench time and giving them leverage to make trades.