Ron Cook: Pirates' Harrison plan good, minus involving Alvarez



Super utilityman works, for sure. That perfectly describes the Pirates' Josh Harrison. But you have to like what general manager Neal Huntington had to say Sunday about Harrison. "Josh has the ability to be a regular player that plays irregular positions." Nice.

Harrison played left field in a 5-2 win Sunday against the New York Mets, bumping Starling Marte to center to give Andrew McCutchen just his second day off of the season. He had a double and scored two runs. Harrison is expected to play right field Tuesday night against the Arizona Diamondbacks, giving Gregory Polanco his first break after 19 consecutive starts since his call-up June 10 from the minors. Down the road, Harrison will give the occasional day off to Marte in left, Neil Walker at second and Pedro Alvarez at third. The Pirates should be a fresher, stronger team as summer really heats up.

"That's going to be a blessing for this organization," Huntington said. "It's about depth."

The plan makes perfect sense.

The suggestion to play Harrison regularly at third and bench Alvarez does not. That was a popular idea for much of June when Alvarez struggled, but you aren't hearing it as much this morning after Alvarez had a double, home run and three RBIs Sunday against Mets starter Bartolo Colon, who had gone seven consecutive starts without allowing more than two earned runs.

The suggestion to play Harrison regularly at third and move Alvarez to first isn't going to happen, either. "It has never been discussed," Alvarez said. Nor should it now. You don't ask a player to take on a new position in the middle of the season. That's unfair to him and the team.

Huntington acknowledged the Pirates aren't getting the power production they would like out of platoon first basemen Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez. Going into the games Sunday, the Pirates first basemen ranked 13th in the National League in batting average, tied for 12th in home runs, tied for 13th in RBIs and 13th in OPS. Davis did have a big game, knocking in the first two runs off Colon with a first-inning single and getting another single later.

But Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle put more value in Harrison "bouncing around giving everybody rest" than they do in putting Harrison at third and moving Alvarez to first. They are confident Alvarez will work out his throwing problems at third, which have led to his 17 errors this season. Alvarez has been better, although Hurdle did replace him with Clint Barmes for defensive performances in the ninth Thursday night against the Mets. Huntington also believes that, by the end of the season, Alvarez will approach the 36 home runs and 100 RBIs he delivered in 2013. Alvarez, who has 13 homers and 42 RBIs after 82 games, shares that confidence. "I feel like I'm in a good place right now."

There's no question Alvarez needs to be in the lineup virtually every day. It's OK to give him a day off when the Pirates face a rare left-handed starting pitcher, but that's it. He, as much as McCutchen, will determine how far the team can climb in the second half. He can change games with one swing. It happened in Tampa Bay a week ago when he hit a three-run home run to turn a tight 3-1 game into a comfortable 6-1 lead. It happened again Sunday when he ripped a double to right off Colon in the first to give the Pirates a 3-0 lead, then hit a long two-run home run to right in the fifth to make it 5-0. Alvarez was on base nine times in his final 14 plate appearances against the Mets with six hits, two walks and a hit batsman. He has nudged his batting average to .241, his OPS to .746. His strikeouts are down; he's on pace for 152 this season after leading the National League with 186 in 2013.

"Very good swings throughout the day, improved swings throughout the series," Hurdle said of Alvarez. "We all know what he's capable of. We believe in him. He continues to work. You can see the difference he can make in a game."

The Pirates have shown great patience with Alvarez. He is starting to reward that patience. It's nice to know the team will stick with its plan for him. It really does make perfect sense.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 03.7 The Fan.


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