Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez makes error on a ball against the Colorado Rockies at PNC Park.
By Bob Smizik / Special to the Post-Gazette
It looks like the Pirates might be falling in line with summer-long demands of fans who have clamored for the team to switch the erratic-throwing Pedro Alvarez from third base to first base.
The situation has reached such a point that no matter how unorthodox a midseason move it might be, the Pirates really don’t have a choice. Alvarez’s throwing is getting worse instead of better. He made three bad throws Saturday night. One was an error; the other two were salvaged by first baseman Ike Davis. Manager Clint Hurdle pulled Alvarez in the sixth inning of a 1-1 game. Alvarez did not start Sunday.
For the moment, it’s clear not only that Josh Harrison is the team’s starting third baseman but that Alvarez cannot be trusted at the position with the Pirates involved in a tight pennant race. After losing to Arizona, 3-2, in 10 innings Sunday, the Pirates are in third place and 1 1/2 games behind Milwaukee, which leads the National League Central Division.
Concerning the possible switch of positions, assistant general manager Kyle Stark, who was with the team in Arizona, said, “It's a challenge right now, but we've got to figure out the best way to get (Alvarez's) bat in the lineup as much as we can. There are some conversations that still need to be had amongst everybody involved.”
Harrison had two more hits Sunday and is on a 16-for-36 (.444) roll. But even if he weren’t hitting so well, he’d be the team’s regular third baseman, such are the defensive deficiencies of Alvarez.
The Pirates have maintained it is not a wise course to switch a player in the middle of the season to a position he’s never played. There’s much truth to that, and it once stood as a legitimate course of action. But with Alvarez’s defense continuing to unravel, that strategy no longer makes sense.
The Pirates have to start giving Alvarez some drills at first base. It is a position at which, given time, he probably could become proficient. He is a good athlete and relatively quick for a big man. If it were not for his arm, he’d be an above-average third baseman, which is a more difficult position to play than first.
But first base is not easy and the transition will take time. If Alvarez shows some promise and the incumbents are not producing, he could be the team’s first baseman later in the summer.
Davis, who gets the majority of playing time at first base, has performed much better in the second half of the season in his career, which dates back to 2010. There are indications that is happening again this season.
At the All-Star break, Davis had this batting line: .234/.354/.345 -- .698. He homered every 47 at-bats. Since the All-Star break, this is his line in 36 plate appearances: .281/.314/.531 -- .845. He has homered every 16 at-bats.
So far, so good for Davis. If he continues to perform in such a manner, the Pirates might not have any use for Alvarez at first base. But his post-All-Star Game numbers are the result of a small sample size. There are legitimate doubts that he will continue at such a pace.
Alvarez can be a game changer. He led the National League with 36 home runs last season and can carry a team for a week or more with one of his power streaks. But such streaks have been almost absent this season. He has 15 homers, well off his 2013 pace. He has homered only twice since July 1.
But even the slumping Alvarez has better power numbers than Davis. His OPS is eight points higher, his slugging percentage 35 points higher.
There is no guarantee that Alvarez can master first base or if he does that he will be needed. But the Pirates have little choice but to attempt the switch. Alvarez can't be trusted at third base. First base is an option to getting him in the lineup and hopefully unleashing his once-potent bat.
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