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Biertempfel: First base becoming new hot corner for Pirates

| Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014, 7:42 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates first baseman Pedro Alvarez fields a ground ball during the fourth inning against the Braves on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, at PNC Park.

First base is fast becoming a home for wayward careers among high-profile players in the Pirates' system.

Pedro Alvarez is the most glaring example. When the Pirates drafted him with the second overall pick in 2008, some scouts already were whispering he'd eventually have to move off third base.

This month, after Alvarez's throwing blunders went from being an annoyance to a full-blown crisis, he was shifted to first base. Barring an injury to third baseman Josh Harrison, Alvarez will close out the season at first.

In May 2012, after 15 awful outings as a pitcher at short-season Single-A, second-round pick Stetson Allie was converted to an infielder. Allie started at third base but soon settled at first base. This year, Allie, 23, is batting .238 with 19 homers at Double-A Altoona.

About a week ago, catcher Tony Sanchez made his first-base debut with Triple-A Indianapolis. Sanchez was the fourth overall pick in 2009. During spring training this year, Sanchez told me he has been battling the yips throughout his career in the minors. He continues to have trouble throwing out base-stealers.

Sanchez's shuttle to first base happened at the same time the Pirates sent catcher Elias Diaz to Indy. Diaz has been getting playing time behind the plate at Sanchez's expense.

Assistant general manager Kyle Stark said management has liked Diaz's potential for a couple of years and has been waiting for him to start to live up to it.

“He's a guy who we've always thought has a chance to be an everyday catcher in the big leagues,” Stark said. “The defensive tools profile. Offensively, he's slowing things down and has sold out to his approach. I think he's just matured.”

Stark said Diaz will be in big league spring training camp in February. Has Diaz vaulted ahead of Sanchez in the pecking order?

“I don't know that he's necessarily moving ahead of Tony,” Stark said. “It's more a matter of us recognizing that we need multiple options and making sure we've got them.”

Alvarez, Allie and Sanchez give the Pirates a glut of former high draft picks who are trying to salvage their careers by moving to first base. Yet, there's another one coming whose long-term outlook might be the brightest.

In 2011, the Pirates drafted high school outfielder Josh Bell in the second round for $5 million, a record bonus for a player not taken in the first round. However, a bum knee and the long-term contracts given to the “Dream Outfield” — Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte already have theirs, and Gregory Polanco eventually will get one — likely will block Bell from ever patrolling the outfield grass at PNC Park.

Tuesday, the Pirates announced Bell will play in the Arizona Fall League, which usually acts as a fast track to the majors. Stark told me Bell will play first base — exclusively — the next few months.

“It's one of those things,” Stark said. “We've been working him out at first base (at Altoona). We'll get him to Instructional League (in Florida) so he can actually play some games there at first base to prepare him (for the AFL). It's going to be first base only because we want to get him some reps there and see what we've got.”

If Bell, 22, sticks at first base, he probably will begin next season at Altoona. If things go well, he might make his big league debut sometime in 2016.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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