On the Pirates: A first look for Alvarez at first base

A look inside Pedro Alvarez’s debut Monday at 
first base smack in the middle of a pennant race

The experiment began Monday, less than two weeks after Pedro Alvarez began taking ground balls at first base for the first time in his professional career. Rather than make the brief trip from the home dugout to the hot corner Monday night, Alvarez jogged across the diamond, with third base put on hold for the rest of this season and the other corner infield spot his only route to the lineup.

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The combination of factors that forced this move left manager Clint Hurdle with a complex equation to solve each night, and could do the same for the front office in the offseason. Neither of those currently matter to Alvarez, who is trying to contribute to a team in a playoff race.

"It felt new," he said after Monday's game. "Obviously, first time out there. It takes some getting used to. It's a different angle, a different point of view, different responsibilities that come with that position."

Banished - temporarily, at least - from third base due to a pervasive inability to make routine throws, Alvarez began taking grounders at first base Aug. 8. He worked with infield coach Nick Leyva and first baseman Gaby Sanchez on footwork, positioning, turning 3-6-3 double plays and making throws to third and home.

"We've been practicing over there pretty vigorously with the intention of trying to get game-ready as quickly as possible," Alvarez said.

In his first game, Alvarez made seven putouts in seven chances. Two poor throws pulled him off the bag, though in neither case was it clear-cut that an experienced first baseman would have secured them.

"It's the same kind of stuff you do since Little League, but obviously the only difference [is] at third ... it just comes naturally because I've done it so many times, so many repetitions," he said. "At first I just kind of had to remind myself to do certain things."

As much as they worked, they can't practice game speed or simulate everything Alvarez might encounter.

"I would say the thing I had to kind of make the biggest adjustment [Monday] was playing behind the runner and making sure I had visibility of the hitter at the plate," he said. "That's one thing we couldn't really practice until we got to a game situation. That was probably the only thing that I kind of had to make an in-game adjustment."

Alvarez's move to first also represents an in-game adjustment of sorts for Hurdle. No longer does he trust him at third, evidenced by Hurdle removing Alvarez after six innings in Arizona because of three poor throws. It appears that line of thinking will hold for the rest of the season: "My intention is to not close the door on that [third base], but this season, right now, to put the best team on the field every night that I can for us," Hurdle said. "If that includes him at third, so be it. Right now, I think we have better options."

But Alvarez's track record of power production could help a lineup recently beset with injuries and a contending team that just halted a seven-game freefall before going into a weekend series in Milwaukee.

"I look at a number of different things, offensive indicators, average at the time, individual matchups, defense," Hurdle said regarding who plays at first. "As far as for the position, the pitcher we're playing. All that goes into it."

Complicating matters further: Hurdle already has a left-handed first baseman in Ike Davis. Offensively, choosing between Davis and Alvarez represents selecting between current production and on-base percentage, or banking on track record and power potential.

Davis, who like Alvarez is 27, has a career .337 on-base percentage and a .352 mark this year. Alvarez has a career .307 OBP, but hit 30 or more home runs in each of the past two seasons. He has 15 home runs this year, in a below-average offensive season, to Davis' eight.

"Pedro's shown us a bat that can get white-hot," Hurdle said. "It hasn't this year. Are there opportunities for that still to happen? We believe there are, so we've got to find him some at-bats. Has third base been the optimum place to get them? No it has not."

Alvarez said playing first base should not impact his offensive production, but playing the field again will provide him more consistent plate appearances, which he had not been getting as Hurdle accounted for the defensive issues.

"Those are two different sides of the game, defense and offense," he said. "I think many times if you are struggling at the plate you try not to take it out on defense."

Alvarez is entering his second year of salary arbitration, while Davis and Sanchez will enter their third. Alvarez makes $4.25 million this season, Davis $3.5 million, Sanchez $2.3 million. Alvarez and the Pirates will face the question of whether he can return full time to third base. Keeping two arbitration-eligible, left-handed first basemen who don't hit well against left-handers would be a stretch.

How things can change in a six-month season: A 2013 All-Star at third base is working at first, a position manned on opening day by Travis Ishikawa.

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