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Bucs' hot-corner battle will heat up this spring

February 7, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- Lineup decisions made in Spring Training don’t last forever. Need proof? Flip the calendar all the way back to last March. On March 18, 10 days before Opening Day, general manager Neal Huntington named Jung Ho Kang the Pirates’ starting third baseman and Erik González the starting shortstop.

PITTSBURGH -- Lineup decisions made in Spring Training don’t last forever. Need proof? Flip the calendar all the way back to last March.

On March 18, 10 days before Opening Day, general manager Neal Huntington named Jung Ho Kang the Pirates’ starting third baseman and Erik González the starting shortstop. By the end of the month, Kang was giving away playing time to Colin Moran, González was on the injured list and Cole Tucker was the starting shortstop. By early August, Kang had been released and Kevin Newman had cemented his role as the everyday shortstop.

Yes, plenty of things change throughout the course of a 162-game season, but Spring Training position battles might take on greater importance this year. Players are being evaluated by a new GM, Ben Cherington; a new manager, Derek Shelton; and a bunch of new coaches.

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There will be plenty of competition in camp. Someone has to back up Jacob Stallings behind the plate. The bench could go several ways. There are more starting pitchers than rotation spots. Pittsburgh has a ton of bullpen candidates, including a handful who are out of Minor League options.

But one of the most significant position battles will take place at third base. Cherington essentially posted the job last month when he said the Pirates are “looking for more production defensively and offensively out of third base in the long haul.” That means Moran isn’t guaranteed the job.

“That’s something he’s clear on and working hard on, but we also expect that to be a competitive situation where we want to give some others a chance to show what they can do, too,” Cherington said.

Here’s a look at how the competition is shaping up heading into Spring Training.

The incumbent: Colin Moran

There’s still a chance Moran could claim the job if he proves he deserves it. The 27-year-old had a perfectly solid first half at the plate last season, slashing .294/.335/.480 with 10 homers and 49 RBIs, but he struggled in the second half, and his overall production has lacked in two key areas: power and defense.

Among 20 third basemen who qualified for the batting title last year, Moran ranked 19th with a .429 slugging percentage and a .751 OPS. Last season, Moran ranked 33rd out of 35 qualified third basemen with minus-7 infield Outs Above Average, according to Statcast. In 2018, he ranked 34th out of 35 qualified third basemen with minus-10 OAA.

One area in which Moran excelled? Pinch-hitting. He went 6-for-20 with three homers and nine RBIs off the bench in 2019, and he was similarly productive as a pinch-hitter in 2018, going 11-for-26 with a homer, two doubles and four RBIs. Even if he’s not the starter, he’d have value off the bench as a left-handed hitter capable of backing up both corner-infield spots.

He also graded out relatively well among his third-base peers in batting average (.277, 10th), doubles (30, 13th) and RBIs (80, 13th).

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Last month, Moran talked about improving his first step in the field and keying in on a more consistent approach at the plate, and if that all pans out, he might be the best option at the hot corner. If not, perhaps the Bucs will consider a more powerful bat or a dynamic defender to upgrade their infield.

The returning options: Erik González, José Osuna
By OAA and Defensive Runs Saved, González was the Pirates’ top defensive shortstop and third baseman last season. If Pittsburgh wants the best glove at third base, for now, it’s the 28-year-old career utility infielder.

The offensive downside is obvious. González has a career .260/.295/.364 slash line in 431 Major League plate appearances. He was better in September, hitting .322/.349/.407 in 20 games, but that’s a small sample at the end of the season -- and even then, he struck out seven times as often as he walked.

But if he could combine slick defense with an offensive output even remotely resembling what he did last September, when his average exit velocity and launch angle significantly improved, he’d become at least an effective placeholder.

Then there's Osuna, a corner-infield/outfield utility man who has been shuttled between Pittsburgh and Triple-A Indianapolis over the last two years. He’s not a natural third baseman, and range isn’t his strong suit, but he has worked hard to make himself viable at the hot corner. Last season was his best at the plate, as he slashed .264/.310/.456 with 10 homers in 285 plate appearances -- but his 99 OPS+ was only slightly better than that of Moran.

The non-roster invitee: Phillip Evans
Evans, 27, didn’t play in the Majors last year after joining the Mets in 2017 and ’18. He spent all of last season with the Cubs’ Triple-A Iowa affiliate and slashed .283/.371/.470 with 17 homers, 30 doubles, 57 walks and only 74 strikeouts in 539 plate appearances. Most of his professional experience has come at third base, though he has shown versatility by playing first, second, shortstop and left field.

It’s hard to imagine someone going from Triple-A to non-roster invitee to starting third baseman, but the Pirates moved to sign him relatively early this offseason.

The long-term answer: Ke’Bryan Hayes
This is the name to watch and a key part of the Pirates’ future. Hayes, MLB Pipeline’s No. 41 overall prospect, is one of the best defensive players in the Minors and will be a future Gold Glove Award candidate whenever he reaches the Majors. Yes, he’s that good defensively.

But for all of his ability in the field, the 23-year-old will likely begin the season in Triple-A to continue his development at the plate. He took a step forward in Double-A, slashing .293/.375/.444 in 117 games, but last year was a step back. While home runs totals skyrocketed throughout Triple-A, Hayes hit just .261/.334/.411 in 113 games.

The job should belong to him as soon as his bat is deemed ready for The Show. Ideally, that time will come this year.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.