Pirates' defense likely to improve without Alvarez

John Jaso enters the season with five career games at first base.
John Jaso enters the season with five career games at first base.
Photo by Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Travis Sawchik
| Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, 6:12 p.m.

In 2013, a dramatic defensive turnaround helped engineer the Pirates' first winning season since the George H.W. Bush administration.

But the Pirates' ability to prevent runs has been in decline each of the past two seasons. And in a year when many of their National League rivals improved their rosters, the Pirates cannot afford to lose ground defensively.

The Pirates ranked third in baseball in defensive runs saved (68) in 2013 and sixth in 2014 (36) but fell to 12th (seven) last season.

While advanced metrics suggest a decline, so does the most traditional measure of defense: errors. The Pirates committed the most errors (122) in the NL last season after also leading the league in errors in 2014 (109).

The club hopes to improve defensively, and glove-related gains largely could come via addition by subtraction.

Former first baseman Pedro Alvarez was nontendered in December. After throwing issues moved Alvarez off third base in 2014, he was even worse at first base in 2015.

Alvarez committed 23 errors at first base, the most by a major leaguer since another former Pirate, Kevin Young, committed 23 in 1999. Alvarez was worth minus-14 defensive runs saved. Over the past two years, Alvarez accounted for 35 percent of the team's errors.

To replace Alvarez, the Pirates signed another project in former catcher and designated hitter John Jaso, who will be tutored by Young in spring training.

Jaso has played only five career innings at first base. A number of catchers have made the transition to first without issue, including Buster Posey, Joe Mauer and Carlos Santana in recent years.

“We feel John's feet and hands will work well at first base,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “He's very intent on making this work.”

The Pirates also replace Neil Walker at second base with a superior defender in Josh Harrison.

Harrison has played 605 career innings at second base, where he has eight defensive runs saved in his career. Walker was below average last season at second base (minus-2 DRS) and is a minus-10 for his career.

Travis Sawchik is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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