This is the fifth in a 10-part series that will break down the storylines at each position in advance of spring training. At the plate today: third base.
What happened last year: Veteran Jose Bautista was traded late in the 2008 season, a move that allowed Andy LaRoche to assume the starter role. LaRoche made all except 19 starts at the position.
In 150 games, LaRoche put up semi-respectable numbers - a .264 batting average, 12 home runs and 64 RBIs. The 26-year old was better in the field, where he flashed Gold Glove potential. Among players with more than 50 starts at the position, LaRoche ranked first in range factor and second in double plays.
Ramon Vazquez (nine), Neil Walker (eight) and since departed Craig Hinske (two) had the other starts here.
In the hunt this year: LaRoche, Walker and Pedro Alvarez. After a forgettable July and August, LaRoche took his game to another level in the final weeks of the season. Now the question is, which is the real LaRoche - the one that hit .222 in April, June, July and August or the one that hit .321 in May, September and October?
In a 17-game stint late in the season, Walker failed to make an impression. In 36 official trips to the plate, he hit .194 and struck out 11 times. He had been promoted from Class AAA Indianapolis, where he hit .264 with 14 homers and 68 RBIs in 95 games.
In his first season in professional baseball, Alvarez hardly was a disappointment. At Class AA Altoona, he had .333 batting and .590 slugging percentages. He totaled 13 home runs and 40 RBI in 60 games.
The leader in the clubhouse: LaRoche. As the only established third baseman on the roster, he will arrive in Bradenton, Fla. as the clear-cut favorite. If Alvarez shows he can handle the position in the near future, then LaRoche could move to second base, where his skill set may be a better fit.
Player to watch: Alvarez. The arrival of Alvarez has been more anticipated than any other Pirates prospect in recent memory and for good reason.
The first pick of the 2008 draft projects to the kind of left-handed threat that the team hasn't had since the Brian Giles days.
Yet as much as the locals want to see Alvarez in the major leagues, there's no good reason to push him at this early stage. Last season he struck out 59 times in 258 at-bats, the sign of a young power hitter that would benefit from a few months at the Triple-A level. He also has much to learn at third base, where he averaged one error every four-plus games.
Big picture: In a perfect Pirates world, Alvarez will develop into a 40-homer, 100-RBI threat and an adequate glove man at third base, and LaRoche will become a good-hit, better-field second baseman. Plan B has Alvarez at first base and LaRoche at the hot corner.
As for Walker, much was expected of the 18-year old when he was drafted in the first round of the 2004 draft. Six years later, the front office believes it is too early to write him off yet, but at 24, the Pittsburgh native is on the clock.