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Jaso an eager student at first base

MLB.com

BRADENTON, Fla. -- For John Jaso, the idea of being a full-time first baseman is a relatively new one.

A catcher by trade who found a niche as a designated hitter in the American League, Jaso has played five innings at first base in the Majors.

BRADENTON, Fla. -- For John Jaso, the idea of being a full-time first baseman is a relatively new one.

A catcher by trade who found a niche as a designated hitter in the American League, Jaso has played five innings at first base in the Majors.

But the Pirates began thinking of Jaso as a future first-base option four or five years ago, general manager Neal Huntington said. They tried to trade for him and finally landed him as a free agent this offseason. Now, as with Pedro Alvarez last year, they're counting on a first baseman with little experience at the position.

"This wasn't something we stumbled upon this offseason," Huntington said. "This is something we've targeted in the past."

Added manager Clint Hurdle: "Just [part of] our continual quest to think outside the box."

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Their free-thinking mentality led them to an equally open mind in Jaso.

Jaso studies theology in his free time. He's fascinated by the human psyche. He reads a lot, especially during the season. He loves the beach and the outdoors. When he's done playing baseball, he'd like to go back to school and take more classes.

"I'm always wanting to learn," Jaso said.

It's a trait Hurdle admires, one Jaso has also carried into his career. When Jaso broke through with the Rays in 2010, manager Joe Maddon used him as a leadoff-hitting catcher, a relatively unconventional thought, because of his high on-base percentage and smart baserunning. With the A's from 2013-14, Jaso was part of a strict platoon system in which he essentially never faced a left-handed pitcher.

Now, at 32 years old, he's learning to play first base.

"I do have an open mind when it comes to a lot of stuff," Jaso said. "That's just kind of how I am. I think it's helped me out in my career, because it's kept me from being too stubborn about the way I play. It's kept me open to learning new things and to absorb as much as I possibly can to make myself better."

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Jaso put those words into action shortly after signing a two-year, $8 million contract with the Pirates this offseason. He began reporting to the club's Pirate City complex in January, training at his new position. He has worked overtime with first-base coach Nick Leyva and special assistant Kevin Young, fielding extra ground balls and throws from around the infield.

Spring Training didn't have to be this much work. Jaso could have accepted a similar deal from an AL club to be a designated hitter. The offers were there. But Jaso wanted a challenge.

"It's just a great opportunity to keep some leather on my hand, not just do the whole Big Papi routine," Jaso said. "I know in the National League there's no DH to fall back on, so I am taking the first-base thing seriously. I do want to be the best I can possibly be over there."

Video: BAL@TB: Jaso sends solo homer into catwalk in right

Listed at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, Jaso's athleticism isn't a question. As he pointed out, catchers are used to having baseballs flying toward them at over 100 mph, so fielding grounders and receiving throws aren't issues. But he does have to break some habits he developed as a catcher, like catching the ball with his glove pointing straight up.

The Pirates will get a better sense of Jaso's progress when games begin this week. During batting practice last week, he ranged far out to his right, backhanding a hard grounder off Andrew McCutchen's bat. His teammates cheered, third-base coach Rick Sofield shouted, "Jayyyyyy-soooooo!" and Jaso smiled.

"He wants to play defense," Hurdle said. "He wants to be engaged. We'll see where it goes, but when there's want-to deep down inside a guy like that -- I've always talked about trying to bring in men with hunger and with an edge. He's got both of them. I'm a big believer that can lead to some pretty cool things."

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Pittsburgh Pirates, John Jaso