Jaso to play pivotal role on offense, defense

Newcomer spent all spring learning to play first base

Jaso to play pivotal role on offense, defense

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates have built a lineup around on-base percentage and a team-oriented, keep-the-line-moving mentality. They've focused on run prevention, confident that their revamped pitching staff will benefit from improved infield defense.

In both cases, it appears, they're betting on John Jaso. Andrew McCutchen remains the Pirates' most important player, the star and foundation of everything they do, but Jaso will play a pivotal role in their lineup and defense. That is why Jaso is MLB.com's pick to be the Bucs' X-factor in 2016.

The Pirates signed Jaso to a two-year, $8 million deal in December, and he accepted their challenge to learn first base. The Bucs had long coveted Jaso's left-handed bat and patient approach. He will be their leadoff man against right-handed pitchers. As for his defense at first base?

"It'll be a work in progress. He'll continue to grow and get better," general manager Neal Huntington said. "The hands and feet are there. The arm's there. To steal a Clint [Hurdle]-ism, the want-to is there."

Jaso's "want-to" has stood out to the Pirates since he agreed to sign. Jaso has five innings of Major League experience at first base, but he's making up for his inexperience with countless hours of preparation.

"He wants to play it, and he wants to be good at it," infield coach Nick Leyva said. "He doesn't want to be the weak link in our infield."

Jaso reported to the Bucs' minicamp in mid-January. Over the following month, he spent three days a week working out on Pirate City's back fields. He started from scratch then progressed to cutoffs and relays, pickoff plays, turning double plays and eventually game-speed drills.

"It's just kind of getting fundamentals ingrained into muscle memory, the habits," Jaso said. "And then when it comes to game time, you put all that stuff out of your mind."

Jaso started every other game early on in Grapefruit League play. When he wasn't on the main field, he was on the practice field.

The Pirates bused over Minor Leaguers to take the field and simulate game-like situations for Jaso. The work appears to be paying off, as Jaso has committed one error this spring -- a bad throw on March 2, his first game.

Jaso is a good athlete and an eager student, and he's given the Bucs reason to believe he'll hold his own at first. For all of Pedro Alvarez's towering home runs, he committed 23 errors and cost the team 14 runs last season, according to Defensive Runs Saved.

This offseason, the Pirates moved away from raw power and toward on-base ability. They focused on maximizing their run prevention. And they zeroed in on Jaso to help them accomplish both goals.

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.