Departures could lead to better infield defense

Jaso, Harrison form new right side for Pirates

Departures could lead to better infield defense

BRADENTON, Fla. -- By trading Neil Walker to the Mets and cutting ties with Pedro Alvarez this offseason, the Pirates chose to part ways with two of their biggest power bats and remake the right side of their infield.

Alvarez and Walker combined to hit 43 home runs last season, and they started more than 75 percent of Pittsburgh's games at first and second base, respectively. Alvarez ranked third on the team with a .789 OPS , Walker sixth at .752.

Their bats may be missed, but their gloves can be replaced -- and the Pirates' infield defense this season might be better as a result.

"There's another aspect to that. You take away this player or that player, we've also picked up in some areas probably," manager Clint Hurdle said earlier this week. "We're going to be a better defensive team in the absence of some things. Walker was dependable, but we all know we had some challenges with Pedro. That was real."

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Indeed, Alvarez's struggles at first base were well documented. He committed 23 errors and cost the team 14 runs, according to Defensive Runs Saved.

He will be replaced by John Jaso, who's learning the position this spring after spending most of his career as a catcher and designated hitter. Jaso has worked overtime on the back fields of Pirate City and McKechnie Field, going through drills and game-like situations to prepare for the regular season.

"He doesn't want to be the weak link in our infield. Our infield's pretty good," said first-base coach Nick Leyva, who works with the Pirates' infielders. "We pride ourselves on our defensive efficiency, and he wants to be a part of that."

The Pirates ranked 27th in the Majors last year with a Defensive Efficiency Ratio of .680. That was a significant drop from their standing in 2013 (seventh, .700) and '14 (11th, .696).

They hope to improve on that number this season, and much of that improvement must come from the right side of the infield. Jordy Mercer will return at shortstop, and Jung Ho Kang will eventually take over at third base when he returns to full health. Both are considered above-average defenders at their respective positions.

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Walker, meanwhile, was regarded as a solid but not spectacular defender at second, and the numbers reflected that. He committed only seven errors last season but cost the club two runs, according to Defensive Runs Saved.

In his place will be Josh Harrison, moving back to the position where he broke into professional baseball on a full-time basis. Harrison feels he gets the most out of his range at second, and he's played up the middle alongside Mercer in the Minors.

"There's no doubt those guys know one another. They kind of feed off each other," Leyva said. "There's no substitute for innings played, especially on the same team and working together."

The Pirates' keep-the-line-moving approach, focused more on contact and on-base percentage than pure home-run power, could lead to a more productive season at the plate. But if things go their way defensively, their greatest improvement may come on the other side of the ball.

"You may not have to score [more] to get the run differential," Hurdle said.

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.