The Post-Gazette suggests today that Andy LaRoche will transition into a utility role:
"Right now, the way I've been playing, I don't deserve to be starting at third," he said before the Pirates' game Friday night, when Neil Walker took his starting place at third base. "I'm feeling good, but..."...
While Russell sees signs of progress lately both in the field and in LaRoche's plate approaches, LaRoche is starting to take pregame work at other infield spots: He toiled at second base in Washington, and expects to take grounders soon at shortstop and first -- where he played a 2008 game with Los Angeles.
The main thrust behind what Russell described as an attempt to make LaRoche more versatile: the impending arrival of top-prospect Pedro Alvarez at third base.
"The obvious reason for me to move is to get him up here," LaRoche said. "Hey, I'm all for it if that's going to help our lineup, which I'm sure it will. If he's playing great, and, obviously, I've been scuffling a little bit lately, he deserves to be up here."
The idea here is that Pedro Alvarez will soon be promoted from Class AAA, and will obviously be a higher priority than either LaRoche or Walker. So Alvarez will be the starter at third base. However, the implosion of Akinori Iwamura, who has already lost his starting job at second base, opens an opportunity for either LaRoche or Walker to stay in the starting lineup at second base.
After bumbling around in Class AAA for almost two years, Walker has turned his career around, never cooling down after starting a hot streak at the end of last season in Indianapolis. His glove has always been solid, but he struggled in the minors with his on-base percentage. That problem appears to be behind him, and if it is, his combination of defense and power makes him a valuable player.
LaRoche played well at the start of the season but has been awful since the beginning of May. His chronic back problems may have something to do with that, but he has also appeared to struggle with the mental aspects of the game, occasionally missing easy plays at third despite obviously possessing the tools to be a plus defensive player. Whatever the reasons for his struggles, though, he has now played in parts of four big-league seasons, and he has a career OPS of .661, which is awful for a third baseman. He should still get his fair share of at bats in a utility role, but there's no reason to think he should continue to be a starter.
Alvarez currently has an excellent .929 OPS at Indianapolis, and he's batting .425 in June. He should indeed be promoted soon. His usual pattern in the minors is that he takes a month or two to adjust after being promoted, so expect him to struggle a little in his first few weeks in the majors, but he should emerge as one of the Pirates' best hitters late this year or early next year.