Third-base battle could be brewing

Third-base battle could be brewing

MILWAUKEE -- Shortly after the Pirates dealt away outfielder Jason Bay on July 31, general manager introduced third baseman Andy LaRoche to Pittsburgh in a press conference. And while doing so, Huntington justified the need to acquire another third baseman by saying that the organization did not see prospect Neil Walker as a candidate for the starting third-base job at the start of the 2009 season.

"As we move forward, we're still excited about Neil Walker's growth and development," Huntington said on that Thursday afternoon. "Truth of the matter is that Neil has put himself in a position this year with some offensive struggles that he wasn't ready to go in our minds, Opening Day next year."

Since then, the Pirates traded their other everyday option at third, Jose Bautista. In doing so, despite the promise that there will be no "scholarships" heading into next season, it would seem that the everyday job in '09 will be going to LaRoche by default.

Not so fast, Huntington cautioned.

"We have some things that Andy needs to work on, and we're looking forward to him capitalizing on the opportunity to take the everyday third-base job," Huntington said on Thursday. "But it's not going to be handed to him. He's going to have to earn it."

LaRoche has done little to solidify his case for earning the job in his two months with the Pirates, so far. If anything, he's taken a step back.

Heading into Thursday's series finale vs. the Brewers, he carried a .167 batting average and only 18 RBIs in 209 at-bats. His 10 season errors, many the result of inadequate footwork, haven't helped make a good first impression, either.

"Obviously, it's not been what anybody wants to this point, and I think Andy would be the first to acknowledge that," Huntington said.

While the organization is still confident that the once highly touted prospect will develop into an above-average hitter, the reality is that if LaRoche is unable to remedy some of his offensive and defensive problems early in spring, Walker could be in position to give him a legitimate challenge for the starting job.

Huntington has indicated that there are still checkpoints the organization would like Walker to meet in the Minors before earning a promotion. However, if LaRoche doesn't show improvement by Spring Training and Walker does, Walker may force management's hand to rethink its initial stance.

"Andy has already done some things at Triple-A that we are anticipating Neil will do," Huntington said. "But if it's not Andy, then certainly Neil Walker becomes a candidate."

Huntington also brought up the possibility of "creatively exploring" other options through the free-agent market or the waiver wire this offseason to bring in an external solution for third. However, with the Pirates hesitant to impair the development of both LaRoche and Walker, such a move seems unlikely.

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