First Pitch: Do the Pirates Have Their Third Baseman of the Future?

One of the big themes I’ve talked about with the Pittsburgh Pirates and their farm system has been the total lack of a third base prospect. Pedro Alvarez is a Scott Boras client, which means you can forget about a future extension, and pretty much wait for him to hit free agency following the 2016 season. And since the Pirates don’t have an internal option, that’s going to raise a question about who could be the starting third baseman in 2017.

A lot can happen between now and then. They could have a prospect break out in the minors. Just for perspective, Gregory Polanco is a breakout prospect expected to arrive in the majors in mid-2014. He broke out in West Virginia in 2012. By comparison, to get a guy on the same timeline to replace Alvarez, the Pirates would need a breakout player at third base this season, with that guy speeding through the upper levels. Or they’d need to draft a good hitting college third baseman who could eventually start, and that might be tough with the position they’re drafting in.

Back in November, I recapped the 2013 third base position, and talked about the lack of options the Pirates have for the future. In that article, I talked about a way they could get creative:

The Pirates could get creative and move Wyatt Mathisen to third base. Mathisen is a catcher, but missed a lot of time last year due to a small labrum tear. The injury didn’t require surgery, and it’s hard to say how that will impact his arm strength going forward. Prior to the injury, Mathisen had a strong arm, and has previously played shortstop, so he should be able to handle third. The biggest impact the injury had was that it allowed Reese McGuire and Jin-De Jhang to catch up with Mathisen in West Virginia. The Pirates will either have to hold one of Jhang or Mathisen back in Jamestown, push someone up to Bradenton, or change positions. If they change positions, the best candidate would be Mathisen, and third base would make a lot of sense due to the organizational need.

Even if the Pirates move Mathisen, they don’t have a strong option at third base. The only way they might replace Alvarez internally after the 2016 season is if they draft a third baseman in the first round next year, then watch him ascend to the majors in a year and a half. The timeline is tight for Mathisen as well, since he would have to start hitting immediately in West Virginia next year, move to Bradenton by the end of 2014, get to Indianapolis by the end of 2015, and be ready for the majors after the 2016 season. That’s a lot of developing for a high school player.

Today we learned that the Pirates will be moving Mathisen to third base during the upcoming season. As I wrote in the article back in November, this still might not help their situation once Alvarez is gone. Mathisen needs to break out in West Virginia this year. He needs to hit in Bradenton and Altoona in 2015, just like the route Polanco took this past year. And he needs to be ready for the majors after one season in Indianapolis in 2016. Basically, there’s no room for error with Mathisen if he’s expected to take over for Alvarez immediately after the 2016 season.

But what about taking over at third base in the future? If you’re not focused on immediately replacing Alvarez in 2017, and you focus on Mathisen eventually making it to the majors as a starting third baseman, then the picture looks different. Suddenly the question isn’t “can Mathisen make it by 2017?”, but instead becomes “can Mathisen make it?” I think he can.

Defensively, the move to third base shouldn’t be hard for Mathisen. He was drafted as a catcher, but he was so athletic in high school that his coach used him more at shortstop than catcher. The Pirates saw some of those games at catcher and liked the potential. This was back when Tony Sanchez was struggling, before Reese McGuire was drafted, and when Jin-De Jhang was trying to slim down to have the chance at a long-term future behind the plate. The Pirates were looking for another catching prospect, and Mathisen looked like a good project.

You could argue that he might also be a good project at shortstop, since he played the position in high school. However, a lot of pro athletes once played shortstop in high school. Steve Pearce played shortstop in high school. That’s because the best athletes usually play that position. Most high school shortstops don’t stick at the position in the pros. A lot of them move to third base or second base. The move to third base usually comes if they grow out of the shortstop position. The move to second base comes if they lack the arm strength and glove for the left side of the infield.

Mathisen doesn’t really have the body to be a shortstop anymore, but he could cut it as a third baseman. The move might be easier for him than catching, considering the background. He had more experience in the infield during high school, and playing third base should be easier than playing shortstop. He wasn’t bad behind the plate, but he was raw, and needed work to stick at the position for the long-term. He’ll need work at third base, but you could argue that the work might be easier than behind the plate, since he has more experience in the infield.

The bat is going to be very important for Mathisen, and is going to be the key to his ability to move quickly through the system. He was rated with a strong bat coming out of the draft, but that didn’t show up in 2013. That could be due to his labrum tear. Mathisen has shown the ability to hit for average, with good plate patience and a good on-base percentage. He hasn’t hit for a lot of power, but has some projection there for the future. He’s a little raw offensively, but there’s a lot to like with his bat, even at a corner position. In the 2014 Prospect Guide, where we had Mathisen ranked 21st in the system, I wrote this about the catching log-jam:

One solution for the Pirates could be moving Mathisen to a different position. He’s athletic enough that he could move to shortstop, or third base. Both are organizational needs just as much as catcher, only there’s no McGuire type prospect at third base in the minor league system. Mathisen makes great contact with the potential to hit for power and a great approach at the plate. Offensively, he could handle a move to a different position.

I’ve always seen that offensive potential as good enough to carry him to the majors. I don’t think he’ll have any more difficulty defensively at third base than he would have at catcher. So as to the question of whether Mathisen can make it to the majors as a third baseman, I think he can — and he’s now the top prospect at the position in the system. I just think it might be a stretch to see him up in 2017 to replace Alvarez.

Links and Notes

**The 2014 Prospect Guide is in stock on the products page of the site. The book features profiles, scouting reports, and grades on every player in the minor league system, including our top 50 prospects. The Prospect Guide has been mentioned as a resource several times on the Pirates’ broadcast, and has been purchased as a source of reference by opposing MLB front office members, opposing scouts, and media members. If it’s a good resource for them, it’s a good resource for you. You can order your Prospect Guide on the products page of the site.

**Wyatt Mathisen Moving to Third Base

**Pirate City Notes: Altoona Plays Longball

**Pirates Shopping Jose Tabata; Snider and Mazzaro Could Be Available

**Draft Prospect Watch: Pair of Prep Lefties Making Waves

  • Wyatt had a really good website about his baseball skills prior to his draft. I did a search for it but couldn’t find it. Wonder if he took it down after he was drafted. Links anyone? Thx

  • We can all beat this to death but the they have two really strong young catching prospects and a third (Mathisen) that is a project and more of a true INF experience-wise. …add the Pirates need and Mathisen’s strong arm and to me it is common sense and a no brainer. The only thing better than 2 nice catching prospects is 3 or more but this move basically adds a 3B into their top 30 prospects where previously they had ZERO…and you still have two catchers in the top 30 with the hope of adding at least one very good 3B prospect in the draft. I loved the moran kid from UNC last year but he went just before Meadows I think…and I wouldn’t want Moran over Meadows’ massive potential.

  • Wyatt told me his arm is feeling great this spring, and he said it this this general surprised tone like he wasn’t just saying it to be PC, and like he fully expected it to not be as good as it has been. I’m not media, so no need to make it up

  • Since we are talking about Wyatt- Me and my friends got to meet him this week at Pirate City. After the A game, we were out in the grass playing catch, there was a white car just chilling out there for awhile. Suddenly it pulled up and this woman mentioned she heard me trying to get Wyatt’s autograph, and asked if i still wanted it. I said “yeah, of course” she then told me she was his mom and was waiting to pick him up, and said she’d bring him back over to us when she picked him up. How cool is that? About ten minutes later he came over, I asked him about his arm, had him sign my glove and a couple cards, shook his hand, and wished him luck. It was pretty cool, another reason why Pirate City is just awesome. And its good that players still listen to their mom’s!

    • Awesome story! He seems like a great kid. For what it’s worth, I like the move to 3rd for him.

  • It could be even worse than a second round pick George. If the team that signs Pedro after we extend a QO has a top 10 protected first round pick, then the first pick they would lose would either be a compensatory / supplmental pick if they have one. Or it would be their second round pick if they do not have a supplemental or compensatory pick. So technically a team could only get a 3rd round pick from a QO, or even lower depending on how many other FA’s they signed prior.
    But in most cases your assumption is correct. If they sign someone else they would lose their 1st round pick. Then if they sign another afterwards it would be the next pick in line.

    • Bonds Top Hand – I don’t think is correct, you are describing older system. The Bucs would still get a first round compensation pick (you don’t get the signing team’s pick anymore). a team can lose its second and third round picks by signing more than one player.

  • Like the move. Hopefully Mathisen’s power will develop, as hopefully Polanco’s power will continue to grow as well. Both of them are very young compared to peak MLB power potential.

  • I suppose the one area where I would disagree would be on the time line for Pedro. He is a Boras client, and only a few of his clients have signed extensions. And they were always at market value. So assuming Pedro is as good as gone. You can’t just let him walk and get nothing in return. And the greatest return would be with 1.5 years of control left on his current deal. I think they will try to get Boras to do an extension. If that doesn’t happen (like we all know it won’t) The FO will get his replacement via free agency and trade him for the best possible return. I just don’t see how we will let him walk with nothing except a draft pick with a QO. At least trading him earlier you know exactly what prospects you’re receiving in return versus the crap shoot of the draft and who will be available.

    • Bonds, true the longer they wait the less they’ll get. And who knows what the QO/comp pick process will look like by that time anyway. But keep in mind if Hansen and Mercer prove themselves this year, they could get away with Hansen at SS, Mercer/Walker at 3B/2B (or Mercer at SS if Hansen can’t stick there). Either way, 3 players for the 2B/3B/SS positions for a year or year+. Of course that means they’re stuck in the same situation with Walker, who’s a free agent the same time as Pedro. But they do have some flexibility (assuming Mercer and Hansen are who we think they are).

    • A first round pick is a pretty good return in my opinion, because we won’t be able to trade him without leaving us with a glaring hole at third. I’d keep him around, give him the QO, then watch him leave at the end. Man- if we got solid picks for letting bonds, bonilla, drabek go…..maybe we wouldn’t have been in the crapper for the whole 22 years

  • There’s no way Mathisen has the bat for third unless he drastically changes his swing, and even then it’s iffy. I noticed that the Pirates (or maybe Mathisen himself) have changed where his hands are when he sets up, so someone must be aware of the problems, but he still looks like a mess. Moving to third will allow him to focus more on the hitting, which is good, but I am not optimistic.

    • Jeez, maybe it’s me, but it looks to me like the biggest problem with Mathisen’s swing is the coaching he’s getting.

      Here’s a video of his swing in high school. Notice he uses a high leg kick as a timing device and really rotates his hips well.

      Now watch this video of Mathisen in the minors. Apparently someone told him to lose the leg action and shorten his stroke, but now he’s barely taking a step at all. He just picks his left foot up and sets it down before the ball even arrives. The result is no hip or leg power. He’s just flicking the ball with his hands and arms.

      Hopefully the latter video was taken when he first dropped the leg kick and he’s since found something that works a little better for him. These swings look awful.

      • He certainly looks worse in the video from the minors, but even in the one from high school, he was drifting forward instead of driving forward, and his upper and lower body weren’t in synch. I’d guess the Pirates have been trying to fix him pretty much since they got him. Unfortunately, I saw Mathisen a few days ago in camp, and although he does look different from either of those videos, he still looks fundamentally bad. It’s possible he can fix himself now that he doesn’t have to worry about catching, but it’s certainly going to be tough.

      • Well first of all, he needs to quit the noise, There is no calm before the swing. There is no load. from waggle to go, its bad form and I’ll have to agree. His HS swing looks way better. My thought is that they are breaking it down and rebuilding it from the beginning. I saw him play this past week, but I can’t recall exactly how he looked

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    March 19, 2014 8:52 am

    Does anyone know what the final verdict was on Clay Holmes arm problem? Didn’t he have an apt with the renown Dr Andrews?

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    March 19, 2014 8:52 am

    Moving Mathieson full time to 3B would seem premature to me, especially when you consider he essentially missed all of last year to injury. As a catcher, he was a prospect with value. I am not so sure his bat will make him the same level prospect at 3B – especially from a power perspective. Time will tell, but seems premature to do this – especially after they already decided to move the Taiwanese kid up to Bradenton to catch there. I am not thrilled with the idea, but we will see how he hits this year in WV.

  • Leefoo Rug Bug
    March 19, 2014 8:14 am

    Interesting move…I hope it works out….

  • I don’t get it though. Why the sudden change? Was he a mess at catcher? Is this a way to keep him healthy after his injury problems?
    It just seems like a very sudden move down the defensive spectrum. I’m sure there’ll be some sort of explanation.

    • Did you even read the article?

      • Yes I did. The article suggests that it was because of so many Cs and so few 3b.

        If that’s the only real reason, then it’s still confusing. Mathisen lost value today from moving down the defensive spectrum. I would assume there’s more to the position switch than “lots of C. not lots of 3b.” Because under that logic, Josh Bell would be a 1st baseman now. And that’s a debate that’s already been had. I think most people are in agreement that he chould be an OFer as long as possible until there is actually a hole at 1b and no hole in RF and he is major league ready with the bat.

        I’ll give you this. i did miss one sentence from the article. “The move might be easier for him than catching, considering the background.” But that’s the only thing that sentence that suggested any reasoning other than “lots of C. not lots of 3b.”

        • They can only play one C at a time, but they can play 3 OFs. Plus, they’d want a developing C to play the position as much as possible, probably 6 days a week. An OF can develop his defense quicker even if he DHs 2 or 3 days a week.
          How would you expect him to develop as a C on the same team with McGuire?

      • and i didn’t give enough thought to the point that he might actually be a better 3b right now than catcher since he was an infielder in HS.
        Heck. Maybe Mathisen just wanted to make the switch.
        But i did read the article! I didn’t articulate it as well as i would’ve liked (i had just woken up), but I really don’t think that this move was as simple as “lots of C, not lots of 3b.”

    • Ian Rothermund
      March 19, 2014 10:27 am

      Uh, sudden? It’s the beginning of the season. Also, this answers the question of how they’re going to spread the workload with McGuire being at the same level.

      • I don’t regret using the word “sudden” at all. It wasn’t totally unanticipated, as Tim thought this was a possibility in the Prospect Handbook, but it’s not like there were live rumors about it or anything.

  • Dom DiDominic
    March 19, 2014 6:30 am

    Also, catchers bats, in general, develop slower due to all the time they spend defensively. Athletically, he should be able to handle the move. As long as his bat comes along, the defense should improve the more time he spends there.
    With this move, it gives the organization a real 3B prospect while they remain strong at catcher.
    I would assume they like Wyatt enough to move him. He would probably have more value as a trade chip at catcher, so they much strongly believe in his bat enough to move him to third and want to hang on to many of the catchers.

  • piraterican21
    March 19, 2014 6:25 am

    I’m taking credit for suggesting this move before anyone on this site or any other site I read! But as mentioned above, he needs to start hitting and doing so quickly. I give it less than 50% chance of it happening.

    • Leefoo Rug Bug
      March 19, 2014 8:13 am

      You need to read more sites….

      Also, does this now get you some kind of award? Some cash?

      • NOTHING would be more rewarding than tooting one’s horn on P2.

        • Leefoo Rug Bug
          March 19, 2014 9:52 am

          NorCal….I said you’d say that back in October…remember?

          Btw, we’re missing you at The Asylum. Come back, California Boy.

          Smoothie Foo

          • Thanks for the “vibe” Foo.

            And, I somehow forgot what you said in October, about reminding me what I’d said earlier. Or did you say something earlier, that you’d remind me in October, when you’d said it (earlier).

            (camera fades to perplexed Norcal, and perplexed Foo)

  • Brilliant article. I haven’t seen a lot of power potential from Wyatt in his numbers, but as you said, it could come. Regardless, he seems like the kind of player who will hit for a good average, and would at the very least have extra base power even if it never develops into HR power.

    I would imagine he’d be a good defensive 3B, and it makes sense to get our ducks in a row ASAP with Scott Boras in charge of Pedro. Also, getting him out from behind the plate to a position I would imagine he’d be comfortable with allows him to work more on the bat than worrying about pitch calling and defense behind the dish. It also reduces his chance of injury significantly.

    All in all I think it’s great news. Weiss has some issues anyways, and I think Wyatt is much more of a prospect even though Weiss has the LH bat.

    • Leefoo Rug Bug
      March 19, 2014 8:17 am

      If either Weiss or Wood are prospects, I’m sure we can find room for all of them.

      As for us giving Weiss lots of bucks, it don’t mean jack$hit…..just look at ZVR and others.

      However, I don’t think either of the “W” boys are anything to write to mom about. Jmho