Of all the position battles at camp, the one least likely to affect the everyday starter may well be at third base.
It’s not necessarily because Ke’Bryan Hayes’ 24 games of dominance in 2020 assures him of a long-term reign as the Pirates’ everyday third baseman. But given all the things he was able to accomplish in such a short stretch, there is almost nothing except injury or illness that would bar him from opening the season there.
However, there are other options behind Hayes, including the Pirates’ former third baseman and another 10-year veteran who is a primary third baseman. Here’s where the depth chart stands at the hot corner.
The starter: Ke'Bryan Hayes
You can almost write his name in pen, not pencil. Hayes did everything in 2020. He hit the ball with power (55.4% hard-hit rate). He rarely missed on the pitches he attacked (18.1% whiff rate). He translated his three Minor League Gold Gloves into exceptional defense at the Major League level (three outs above average, the same number as Matt Chapman in 13 fewer games).
Now, we wait to see what the next level is for Hayes. One thing we know is the league is going to try to make him adjust. Pitchers will find any small hole in his game and try to exploit it. He’s ready for that “cat and mouse” game of adjustments, as he put it, and he’s not trying to add any added pressure on himself.
“Whatever the numbers are, at the end of the day, that’s what they are,” Hayes said. “All I can really control is putting together good at-bats and trying to square the ball up. Whenever I’m on defense trying to make every play for my team. That’s really all I can control.”
Moran has been serviceable at third base largely because of his bat, but his defense has been an impediment to his long-term outlook there. In 2019, among all qualified starters at the hot corner, Moran had the third worst outs above average mark (-7), ahead of only Maikel Franco (-8) and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (-16). However, Moran enhanced his batted-ball profile last season, keeping a nearly identical K rate from 2019 (23.3%) to ‘20 (26.0%) while increasing his average exit velocity to a career-best 91.9 mph, which was in the 89th percentile of all Major League batters.
Frazier has always had some pop in his game, though the hard-hit metrics have waned in the back half of his decade-long tenure due to less consistent quality of contact. He showed he still has the heavy lumber with a homer in each of his first two games this spring, and he's hit at least 18 homers in eight consecutive seasons, including 21 in his last full season with the Mets in 2019. His defense that season rated better than Moran, with -2 outs above average. Unlike Moran, however, Frazier is on a Minor League deal, and while his addition to the Major League roster seems more likely than not, he's of the mentality that he's competing for a spot.
Evans could arguably be called a backup here. Though he is an option at every infield position, he saw his most starts in the Minors at third base. He’s made two errors in 17 games with the Pirates at the position. As we’ve written in every position preview across the infield, it will be interesting to see what Evans does at the plate after he came out the gate swinging, going 14-for-39 (.359) in 2020 before he was sidelined for the season after a collision with Gregory Polanco.
Difo has seen much more time at second base and shortstop than third base, but he’s played 264 2/3 innings at the Major League level at the hot corner. Given how many options are ahead of him, it suffices to say Difo will likely not see more than a few starts at third, but he could be used in a pinch if the need arises.
In the pipeline: Hunter Owen, Alexander Mojica
Owen is the most Major League-ready third baseman outside of Hayes among the Pirates' prospects, though he is also a candidate to play in the outfield. He went off at Double-A Altoona in 2019, swatting 15 homers in 68 games to help produce a .985 OPS, but he took a step back in his 42 games at Triple-A Indianapolis. Owen was given a non-roster invite to Spring Training this year, signaling that, at the least, the Pirates would like a longer look at him against more advanced pitching.
Behind Hayes, the Pirates have no third basemen on MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Prospects list for the organization. But Mojica, who is only 18 years old, has the most potential of any prospect at the position, with a 6-foot-1 frame giving him the potential for impact power to complement his ability to make consistent contact. He posted lopsided numbers in the Dominican summer league as a 16-year-old, hitting .351 with 14 doubles, one triple and eight home runs in 55 games.