Pittsburgh Pirates’ player with most to prove at mini-camp

Winter has finally arrived with a vengeance in Pittsburgh. There’s snow on the ground and it’s bitterly cold. It would be easy to not even think about baseball during this most dreadful time of the year, but baseball doesn’t stop as the Pittsburgh Pirates have started their first voluntary mini-camp and, unlike last year, it isn’t surrounded by controversy because of a converted first baseman no-showing.

Mini-camp is pretty much a big tease because it’s a reminder that Spring Training is right around the corner, but that doesn’t really help when you’re cleaning snow off your car at 6am, so baseball still feels so far away.

For most players, mini-camp is simply a time to shake off the cobwebs before Spring Training and no roster decisions are ever really made because pf mini-camp. But there are several Pittsburgh Pirates with a lot to prove even during this one week in early January.

At mini-camp last season, the big controversy was Pedro Alvarez not showing up to work on his first base defense and for the second year in a row, the player with the most to prove is a converted first baseman. John Jaso, unlike Alvarez last season, did show up to mini-camp this year to workout at his new position. Though let’s be clear, Alvarez’s defensive failures in 2015 had nothing to do with not showing up to voluntary workout in early January and if John Jaso is successful at his full-time conversion to first base, it won’t be because he showed up to his first voluntary mini-camp either.

The majority of Jaso’s work at first base will still come starting either on February 19th, when pitchers and catchers report to Bradenton for Spring Training or on February 23rd, the day of the first full squad workout.

John Jaso has spent the bulk of his career at catcher, so him converting to first base has a lot of precedence as other catchers, such as Joe Mauer, Buster Posey, and Carlos Santana, have successfully made the transition from behind the plate to first base.

This mini-camp is the front office’s first chance to see how John Jaso looks at his new position and while the job is obviously his to lose, it’s still good to get an early look at how the transition is going. The memories of Pedro Alvarez’s defensive shortcomings are still fresh in everyone’s mind, so it is vital that the Pirates get better at first base defensively. It was easily the team’s biggest weakness in 2015 and something that really needs to be improved if they want to compete with the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016.

John Jaso does have some experience fielding the position, albeit an extremely small sample size of two games at first base, but it isn’t something coming completely new to him. He also showed decent range factor in his limited chances at first base as he had a 9.00 RF/9, which is slightly below the league average of 9.18RF/9.

The hope would be that Jaso can improve as he learns the position, which is fairly common for converted catchers. Buster Posey for example started out as a terribly below average defensive first baseman as his RF/9 during his first exposure to the position was 7.73, but he has since improved that number to 9.82. Obviously Posey has had years to learn the position and we’re asking Jaso to do it in one offseason, but if Jaso can be anywhere near average at the position, that is a huge improvement from 2015.

John Jaso is far from a guarantee in 2016, but if he can continue to be the hitter he has been during his career and can field the position with any consistency, then the Pirates will have themselves a much better first baseman this coming season. You don’t need a great defender at first base, but you need someone that makes all the routine plays and Pedro Alvarez was not able to do that in 2015, so hopefully the Pirates second attempt at converting a first baseman goes a bit smoother than the first go around. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where it can get any worse.

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