Bucs' infield defense impresses Hurdle

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- There's no denying the impact the Pirates' defensive shifts and analytically-based positioning had on their ability to prevent runs in 2013. Pittsburgh has bought into the numbers and statistics and, just as important, the results.

Pair that with a little additional athleticism from the Bucs' corner infielders, and the Pirates could be even better defensively in 2014.

First baseman Gaby Sanchez and third baseman Pedro Alvarez both flashed some impressive range and leather in Friday's 4-2 loss to Toronto at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. Sanchez moved to his right, nabbed a tough grounder off the bat of speedy Blue Jays outfielder Anthony Gose and flipped the ball to Gerrit Cole at first base for the first out of the game.

Alvarez looked just as sharp when Gose dropped a bunt to begin the third inning, charging in on the ball and zipping it to Sanchez at first base for the out.

Both plays impressed Pirates manager Clint Hurdle.

"We're continuing to stretch these guys out laterally, forward movement, all of it. They both worked very hard on their agility throughout the offseason, as we encouraged all our infielders to do," Hurdle said. "I think there's always a little room for improvement. [Neil] Walker's another guy that worked on it. Jordy [Mercer] worked on it. [Clint] Barmes made a nice play up the middle, again, to his left.

"The guys in the corner proved themselves to be more than capable defenders."

That's not take anything away from what both players have done defensively to this point in their careers, of course. In fact, Hurdle pointed out that Alvarez had nearly 100 more total chances in 2013 (458) than in '12 (364). But if Alvarez and Sanchez continue to improve in that regard, and the technology behind the shifts keeps getting better, then last year's defensive makeover was just the beginning for the Pirates.

"All that goes into the package, we understand the importance of defense, especially when we add our positioning to it," Hurdle said. "So the more athletic they can be, the better."

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.