Pirates prospects embrace versatility

Almost every Triple-A infielder plays multiple positions

March 10th, 2016

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Clint Hurdle says this is the best group of on-the-verge prospects he's seen in Spring Training since he became the Pirates' manager. GM Neal Huntington said it's up there with the class that included Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker.

It's hard to argue. Potential big leaguers are all over the Pirates' clubhouse at McKechnie Field. What makes the group of position players even more interesting? They're all over the field, too.

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Almost every infielder in big league camp who's bound for Triple-A Indianapolis this season can field multiple positions. Max Moroff is a shortstop, except when he's a second baseman or third baseman. Adam Frazier is a shortstop, too, unless he's working in the outfield. Dan Gamache was a second baseman then a third baseman, and he's seeing some time at first base.

Gift Ngoepe can pick it anywhere. Alen Hanson is settling in at second base, but he's played shortstop and started to work at third last year. They're trying to turn non-roster invitee Cole Figueroa into a super-utility player. Pedro Florimon has played all over the infield and in center.

The Pirates have Sean Rodriguez, who can fill in at any position. Josh Harrison is likely locked in at second base, but he could play third or either corner outfield spot, too. All three of their starting outfielders can play center.

Why the focus on defensive versatility, especially with their prospects?

"It's a sign of a Major League team that's becoming better, because it's harder to break in front of [ex-Pirates second baseman] Neil Walker or now Josh Harrison. It's harder to break in in front of Jordy Mercer or Jung Ho Kang," Huntington said. "For a guy to make his way on to the Major League team, it's easier for him if he can play multiple positions, if he can start in a role and earn something bigger."

Hurdle pointed out last week that he's not putting anyone in an entirely unfamiliar position. Rodriguez has played everywhere but catcher. Figueroa has played the outfield, where he's spending more time this spring as the Pirates try him out as a Rodriguez-esque "Super U" player.

Gamache has played first. Frazier played center field last year. It's been a while, but Florimon has lined up in the outfield before.

"We're just looking for different opportunities to get them involved," Hurdle said. "If we've got a position that we may not have as much depth in, it gives them an opportunity to go out and get at-bats."

The key, Huntington said, is finding players with the athleticism it takes to move around so often. That's why so many of their roaming infielders started out at shortstop, the most demanding infield position.

"It's harder to take a first baseman and ask him to go play shortstop," Huntington said. "It's easier to take a shortstop and be able to move him around the diamond."

There's another factor at play. The Pirates are one of the Majors' most aggressive teams when it comes to shifting their defense. If a shortstop has experience at second base, or vice versa, he might feel more comfortable moving to the other side of the field when a shift calls for it.

"The versatility because of the shifts, the versatility to make our club, there's a number of reasons why we do it," Huntington said.