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Pirates

Sound familiar? Pirates enter offseason trying to solidify 1B position

| Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014, 9:51 p.m.
The Pirates' Pedro Alvarez plays first base for the first time in his career during the first inning against the Atlanta Braves on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
The Pirates' Pedro Alvarez plays first base for the first time in his career during the first inning against the Atlanta Braves on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, at PNC Park.
Pirates first baseman Ike Davis takes the field before a game against the Milwaukee Brewers on Saturday, April 19, 2014, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates first baseman Ike Davis takes the field before a game against the Milwaukee Brewers on Saturday, April 19, 2014, at PNC Park.
Pirates first baseman Gaby Sanchez makes a running catch in foul territory during the sixth inning against the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday, June 10, 2014, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates first baseman Gaby Sanchez makes a running catch in foul territory during the sixth inning against the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday, June 10, 2014, at PNC Park.

First base was arguably the Pirates' most glaring need last winter. A full season later, they still are trying to fill the position.

After the Pirates cut loose Garrett Jones, free agent James Loney spurned them in December. Andrew Lambo blew his chance in spring training. Travis Ishikawa started on Opening Day, then vanished when Ike Davis arrived via a mid-April trade. Gaby Sanchez got fewer at-bats this year than he did in 2013.

If any of those guys had been the answer, Pedro Alvarez wouldn't have been transferred from third base, no matter how many balls he threw into the box seats. That move created a rare (and, in the long run, certainly untenable) three-headed platoon at first base.

“Depth is fleeting,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “When you think you have more players than you need for a given position, something plays out so you don't.”

Still, the only thing worse than having no depth is having an abundance of mediocre players. The Pirates will go into spring training still hoping someone can seize the position.

Manager Clint Hurdle likes to say it takes at least 1,500 at-bats for a player to show what he can do in the big leagues. In September, Davis topped 2,000. Given his production so far, this is what a typical 162-season by Davis might look like, according to Baseball-reference.com: 512 at-bats, a .240 batting average, a .759 OPS, 22 home runs and 75 RBIs.

Those stats resemble Davis' output in 2012, when he hit .227 with 32 homers in 519 at-bats with the New York Mets. However, his production plummeted in only 317 at-bats in 2013. This year, he hit .235 with 10 homers in 336 at-bats.

Arbitration-eligible for the final time, Sanchez will make upwards of $4 million next season, after which he will become a free agent. He hasn't reached double digits in homers since 2011 and got only 264 at-bats this season. His shelf life in Pittsburgh figures to be brief.

A lot seems to hinge on whether Alvarez, who made a team-worst 25 errors before a foot injury ended his season Sept. 5, can handle third base.

Alvarez wants to be a third baseman. Agent Scott Boras, eyeing Alvarez's free agency after the 2016 season, also wants his client to stay at third.

“Pedro has a desire to be a very good third baseman,” Hurdle said. “He's also expressed that he wants to do what's best for the club. We'll see how it plays out. With his athleticism, he can play either corner position.”

Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington have said there's a chance Alvarez will open 2015 as the starting third baseman. That would allow Josh Harrison to return to the super utility role.

“In our minds, Pedro's still a third baseman,” Huntington said. “That's a decision we'll make in the offseason. We're going to work as hard as we can to get Pedro through the throwing challenge.”

Which brings us back to a familiar question: Who's on first?

The potential pool of free agents this winter includes Michael Cuddyer, Corey Hart, Michael Morse and Victor Martinez. Adam LaRoche, Adam Lind and Billy Butler have contract options for 2015.

Josh Bell, one of the club's top 10 prospects, started working out at first base at Double-A Altoona. He will play there exclusively in the Arizona Fall League, which begins play Tuesday.

The Pirates drafted Bell as an outfielder when they took him in the second round in 2011 and gave him a $5 million signing bonus. But his path to the majors is blocked by the outfield of Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco.

Stetson Allie, a second-round pick in 2010, was awful as a pitcher, so the Pirates made him into a first baseman. He batted .246 with 21 homers at Double-A Altoona.

Allie is an intriguing player, but he is hardly a sure thing and is still at least two years away from the majors.

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

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