Each Friday leading up to Spring Training, MLB.com will be taking a look at a different position as part of the Pirates' 2013 season preview. First up was catchers. This week, corner infielders are featured.
In baseball's ideal scheme, the corners of the infield are power positions, and the Pirates are in good position to utilize that blueprint. In 2012, third baseman Pedro Alvarez and first baseman Garrett Jones -- who also spent a lot of time in the outfield -- combined for 57 homers, and in the National League, only the Washington tandem of Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche had more, 58.
Barring any cast changes, then, the Bucs are set at the corners. Alvarez, turning 26 early next month, has the hot corner franchise. Two veterans, Gaby Sanchez being the other, and high-upside prospects Clint Robinson and Jerry Sands make first base one of the deepest positions.
As formidable as was his 30-homer season, the third-most prolific at the position in club history, expectations are Alvarez could only now be ready to really bust out. He has worked his way out of a deep hole and, past that burden, can be more relaxed and productive.
The thinking is sensible, because El Toro was at an absolute bottom on June 15. At that point, he was batting .190 across his last 129 games, including all of 2011, with nearly twice as many strikeouts (147) as hits (80) in his last 420 at-bats. But from
that point, he found the resolve to hit .274 in the next 94 games, with 22 homers and 60 of his 85 RBIs.
A remarkable and admirable turnaround, particularly under the circumstances, which included fandom's rancor.
"He had a lot of those 'Aha!' moments," said manager Clint Hurdle, "that tell him, 'I can do this. This is why I've worked so hard and put in the extra effort.' He wants to be special."
Alvarez can be special in the field, too. His 27 errors were eight more than those committed by any other Major League third baseman, but most resulted from loss of focus on easier plays. He excels on challenging plays, such as charging balls, and has a fabulous arm.
Josh Harrison, whose versatility adds to his value, returns as the prime backup at third.
Across the infield, the depth chart is noted in pencil for the simple reason that the man atop it -- Jones -- still seems to have one foot out of Pittsburgh. The Pirates are keeping him on the market for two very good reasons, neither of them being the fact he is in line for a salary approaching $5 million in his second go at arbitration.
One, the 31-year-old's market is at a peak off a 27-homer, 86-RBI season.
Two, the Bucs have loaded up on candidates to step in if Jones moves.
None would have an easy task matching what Jones provided. In fact, few in the NL last season equaled his package of destruction against right-handed pitching. Jones tied for second with 25 homers (Giancarlo Stanton, 27), was second with 76 RBIs (Alfonso Soriano, 83) and tied for fifth with a .556 slugging percentage.
Then there is his versatility, as he split his 127 starts virtually evenly between first and right field, and his demeanor -- Jones is one of those blue-collar types who perfectly matches the city. The value of such intangibles is always debated, yet the midseason trade of a similar player, Casey McGehee, did impact a fragile clubhouse.
The leading alternative obviously is Sanchez, who will have a role whether or not Jones remains on the scene. But the Pirates clearly view Sanchez as more than just 2013's McGehee, a righty bat to platoon with Jones. At 29, he is mere months removed from strong back-to-back 2010-11 seasons (38 homers, 163 RBIs).
"Toward the end of the season, there were a lot more instances where I got to show what I can do. I felt more comfortable at the plate. Defensively, it's always been there," said Sanchez, very smooth around the bag. "I go into Spring Training with the intention of doing whatever I can to help the team win. Hopefully, that is a starting job at first base and Garrett playing right field. Or whatever it is. There are a lot of moving pieces."
Robinson (from Kansas City, for two pitching prospects) and Sands (from Boston, as part of the package in the deal involving Joel Hanrahan) are two of those pieces. Other than the fact the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Robinson bats left and the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Sands bats right, they could be clones of each other.
Both are Southerners who were 25th-round picks and have power-packed Minor League resumes. Robinson has struck 110 homers in six seasons, including 36 the last two in Triple-A, and Sands has 119 homers in five seasons in the Minors, including 55 the last two in Triple-A.
Sands, 25, is the one with significant big league experience. He was viewed as the Dodgers' first baseman of the future after batting .253 and driving in 26 runs in 61 games in 2011, but they jumped at the chance to convert him into Adrian Gonzalez in last summer's mega deal with the Red Sox, who in turn flipped him to the Bucs.