After Russell Martin's departure, which I talked about last time, the biggest question for the Pirates might be how is Pedro Alvarez going to be in 2015. Looking back at 2014 is probably painful for "El Toro," seeing his season end on the injured list after a disastrous year that ended with him losing his job at third base and now being tried out at first.
The infield gets a big switch on the corners. Josh Harrison will take over for Pedro, something that we'll talk about shortly, and Alvarez will try to learn a new position, manning first base. Critics of Pedro talked incessantly about how his poor defense, a league leading 25 errors in 2014 and also 27 in 2013,getting in his head and affecting his offensive numbers. After a National League leading 36 homers in 2013 (tied with Paul Goldschmidt), his bashing tailed off to 18 homers. What people get upset over is the enormous amount of strikeouts that he has had over the past two seasons. Those total 299 strikeouts over the past two years, leading the NL with 186 in 2013.
The biggest question for 2015 is how he will handle the move from third to first. Most of his errors are because of throws. He won't have to throw as often at first base. We know that he can make great catches, but his concentration will now be receiving the ball. The biggest surprise to most people will be that his hitting didn't fall off as far as people would like to believe. While the homer and runs batted in production was down, his batting remained almost the same, only dipping from .233 to .231. Even more surprising, his on base percentage went up, from .296 to .312. Let's be honest, the Pedro Alvarez we want to see is the power hitting consecutive 30 homer campaigns (done in 2012-13) with less strikeouts and solid defense at first. I believe if he listens to hitting coach Jeff Branson more (some members of the press make comments about how he doesn't listen well) and less to those critics, I think he will find his way back and hopefully be a better hitter (not just basher) in 2015.
However, the Pirates have begun a contingency plan in the case that doesn't happen. The Pirates have already worked with youngsters Andrew Lambo and Josh Bell, both outfielders, to adjust to first base. Part of the reason is because of the future in the Pirates outfield with Marte, McCutchen and Polanco, left to right. All three of them are signed through at least 2018, so there is no room for either in the outfield, except as a reserve.
The tryout for Lambo began at Indianapolis in 2014 with 17 of his 61 games at first base. He had only two errors and hit rather well at Indy with a .328 in 262 at bats, hitting 19 doubles, 11 homers and 42 runs batted in. He's been a late-season call up twice now, but has pedestrian numbers in 39 games over those two seasons (.246 with six doubles in 69 at bats).
The Josh Bell experiment might take longer as he did adjust decently to AA, but lost most of his power while at Altoona. In the Arizona Fall League, the Pirates began the switch to first. Time will tell if it ends up being successful. In the short term, it didn't look good for his offense. he hit .214 in 84 at bats with eight doubles among his 18 hits for the Scottsdale Scorpions. His slugging percentage has dropped almost two hundred points since leaving the friendly confines of A Bradenton. Finding that stroke will be important for him to be a fixture at first in the future for the Buccos.
The Pirates also invested in the free agent market for insurance for first base. They picked up former Milwaukee Brewer Corey Hart in the middle of December. Keep in mind that his 2014 was primarily as a designated hitter for the Seattle Mariners. In 68 games, he had only six homers and 21 RBI, while hitting a paltry .203. The Pirates are hoping that Hart continues to get healthier and return to the form that he had in Milwaukee, where he had 30 homer seasons in 2010 and 2012.
Outside of those possibilities, the Pirates could look to the trade market. However, if Pedro falters, he won't have much value at all and will probably never see that juicy contract that agent Scott Boras is hoping to get by the end of 2017, when he will become a free agent. If you have any trade ideas, post them in the comments.
Next time we look at the Pirates, it will be for the rest of the infield. Next up, I'll give you my picks if I had a ballot for the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.
Thanks for reading,