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GM: Alvarez to play 3B, LaRoche utility

GM: Alvarez to play 3B, LaRoche utility

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DETROIT -- When top prospect Pedro Alvarez is ready to join the Pirates -- many speculate that could be really soon -- he will do so as a third baseman. Speculation that Alvarez could be asked to play first base was put to rest on Friday when general manager Neal Huntington stated the organization's plans to have Alvarez continue playing third.

This, of course, has widespread implications for current third baseman Andy LaRoche, who is well aware that his days as an everyday player with Pittsburgh appear numbered. As a result, the Pirates are beginning to groom LaRoche as a utility infielder.

"When Pedro shows us he is ready for promotion, he will step in at third base and be given the chance to show he is ready to become an everyday Major League third baseman," Huntington said. "Andy has been and will continue to be an asset to our Major League club, but his at-bats will come in a part-time role as he becomes comfortable playing around the diamond."

LaRoche began taking groundballs at second base during the team's recent visit to Washington, D.C. Manager John Russell said he expects LaRoche to get more work at second -- a position LaRoche played a handful of times when in the Dodgers' organization -- over the weekend. Work at shortstop and first base soon will follow.

LaRoche was drafted as a shortstop and played the position in college, so that transition isn't expected to be too difficult. Though he played a limited amount of first base in the Minors, LaRoche is expecting that position to be the most difficult to master.

Yet, LaRoche also realizes that he has to seize this opportunity to hone his skills across the diamond in order to remain a valuable piece on this team.

"The obvious reason for moving me is to get him up here," LaRoche said, referring to Alvarez. "I'm all for that if that's going to help our lineup. I've been scuffling a little bit lately, and he deserves to be up here. Right now, I don't deserve to be starting at third."

LaRoche has uncharacteristically struggled defensively at times this season, but his offensive production has been the biggest disappointment. He had a 13-game stretch in late April/early May in which he hit .377, but the results have otherwise been less than stellar.

LaRoche's batting average has dipped to .240, and his 12 RBIs are the lowest of any National League third baseman with at least 100 at-bats. He has only nine extra-base hits.

Though LaRoche's back is no longer hindering him, he said on Friday that he hasn't felt the same since missing nearly a week of games in late May to nurse lower back soreness.

"I felt like my swing hasn't been the same," LaRoche said. "I was feeling good before that, and then it flared up, and I just lost it. I'm trying to get it back right now."

At the same time LaRoche has been scuffling, Alvarez has been soaring with Triple-A Indianapolis. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft has watched his season average climb to .291 after starting the month 16-for-36. Seven of those hits have been for extra bases.

He is using the whole field more consistently, driving the ball more frequently, showing more patience and showing a better approach against left-handed pitchers. The latter was one of the organization's primary goals for Alvarez heading into the season.

"He's doing well," said Russell, who keeps a close eye on the Indianapolis box scores. "He's making some adjustments. It is good that he's starting to do some of the things that we've envisioned. We've been patient. I think it's really paid off for all of our guys to be patient with them."

Alvarez had twice as many RBIs in May (30) as he did during the season's first month, and he entered Friday ranked second in the International League in total bases (123). His 50 RBIs are fourth highest in the IL, and he's tied for fifth in home runs (12) and hits (65).

So does all this recent production from Alvarez mean a promotion is imminent? Huntington isn't about to announce a particular date, though it's obvious Alvarez is knocking on the door.

"Pedro is making strides, especially with the bat and is getting closer to accomplishing what he needs to accomplish to be ready to take the next step in his development," Huntington said. "Pedro has performed very well against left-handed pitching to date, and for the most part that is reflective of an improved approach versus left-handed pitchers. While he has made progress, we still have work to do on other fronts."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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