The options are limited with Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez. For the time being, manager Clint Hurdle prefers more reliable defensive options at third. Alvarez currently cannot play another position, and if he is to learn one, he likely will not do so until after the season. The Pirates cannot send him to the minors without exposing him to other teams via waivers.
That leaves one possibility -- for Alvarez, afflicted with unprecedented throwing issues, to figure it out.
"He'll work through it," said third-base coach Nick Leyva, who also serves as the team's infield coach. "It's one of those things, it's like a slump when you're at the plate. You know sooner or later you're going to start seeing the ball good, you're going to start getting that swing back. It's just a matter of how quick we can get it back."
Alvarez's 24 errors, most of them throwing, lead the major leagues. Leyva described the issue as one of rhythm and timing. When Alvarez collects the ball and funnels it to his stomach, keeping his feet moving and getting them into proper position, the throws are fine. If he rushes, he disrupts his rhythm, resulting in poor mechanics.
In recent weeks, Alvarez has slowed his throwing motion on ground balls when he has time do to so, such as a hard-hit grounder or with a slow-running batter. Leyva said the speed is less important than the timing.
"I think any time a player's struggling with something, it's a mix of mental, physical and fundamental," assistant general manager Kyle Stark said. "I think that's how we approach things with all of our guys and I think it's probably a mix of all those things."
The Pirates enter a game tonight at PNC Park against the Miami Marlins at 59-52 and in a tight competition for the National League Central Division. Alvarez, a notoriously hard worker, arrives early and takes extra ground balls, but as Leyva said: "There's not too much more to do, pregame. He's as fundamentally sound as anybody we have in the infield, technique-wise."
Josh Harrison, whom Hurdle called the club's best defender at third, has spent time at third base and likely will play there more often when Starling Marte returns from the disabled list. Newly signed infielder Jayson Nix also can play third. The Pirates' status as contenders puts Alvarez in a tough spot: How can he earn his way back into the lineup if the team must play others to ensure strong defense?
"I think it's just like with any one of our players. It's, 'can we trust you?' " Stark said. "Can we trust you to make the routine play?
"He's doing everything he can to try to help this club. I think that there's always going to be a little bit of, just like it is with anything, how does the work transition into the game? That's what we're kind of working through right now."
Hurdle and Stark acknowledged that there might come a time when they ask Alvarez to move off the position, with first base the most likely destination in that case, but both said any such move would happen later if at all.
"Our focus right now is the short term and trying to figure out how can he help this club win the game on a nightly basis," Stark said. "I think we'll talk about positional changes at some point if we have to cross that bridge."
Moving Alvarez to first would create a logjam for the roster and offseason arbitration negotiations. The Pirates also have first basemen Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez, whose salaries of $3.5 million and $2.3 million will increase in the arbitration process this offseason if they are tendered contracts. Alvarez makes $4.5 million and has two more years of arbitration remaining.
Though drawing a correlation between defensive struggles and performance at the plate risks false assumptions, Alvarez has hit .209 with a .284 on-base percentage and two home runs since July 1.
"They're human beings," Stark said. "It's hard to isolate one. All those things run together and influence guys. I think Pedro's doing everything he can to try to isolate those things."