The play of the Pittsburgh Pirates' corner infielders could go a long way towards determining the success of the team's offense this season.
Unlike in seasons' past, the Pirates enter 2012 relatively set at the positions, featuring two sluggers who have the potential to dramatically alter any individual game.
Yet despite this cause for optimism, it's hard to say the Bucs are in a particularly good place at the corner infield positions. Organizational depth is rather thin, and even the Pirates' front-line players enter 2013 with question marks.
Garrett Jones and Pedro Alvarez are the best two power hitters on the Pirates' roster, but neither player is a sure thing to repeat their 2012 success.
Jones had a particularly strong season at the plate, slugging .516 and hitting 27 home runs. But he is almost 32 years old and aside from a fantastic half-season in 2009 he has not come close to his 2012 numbers. Thrown in his poor play in the field and against left-handed pitching and there are multiple causes of concern.
Like Jones, Alvarez struggles at times on defense and against left-handers, and he compiled the same below-average .317 on-base percentage as Jones last season.
That said, Alvarez is hypothetically entering his prime, and the former No. 2 overall pick has a very high ceiling if he does indeed reach it. If the streaky Alvarez is to take the next step, he will need to cut down on his 30.7 percent strikeout rate.
Gaby Sanchez, in the midst of a strong spring training and only one year removed from being an effective major leaguer, will be an important player for the 2013 Pirates, as he is probably their best bench bat.
In addition to what is likely to be a prominent pinch-hitting role, Sanchez should see some starts at first base against left-handed pitchers. If he plays well, it is also possible that Jones will be moved to right field to fill a potential hole there.
Aside from Sanchez, there isn't too much of note behind the Pirates' corner infield starters. Clint Robinson and Brandon Inge could see time in Pittsburgh this year, but neither is much to write home about at this stage in their careers.
Josh Harrison and Jerry Sands may also see time at the corners in a pinch, but each player is likely to have a larger role at other positions.
Down on the Farm
The Pirates feature several first-base prospects who have shown the ability to hit at various levels of the organization, but there is no one player who jumps out as a future middle of the order hitter.
Matt Curry, who will likely begin 2013 in Triple-A, is the most advanced of these players. Curry made waves with a scorching start to the 2011 season, and he performed solidly in Double-A last year. He hits for decent power and has shown the ability to take a walk.
Alex Dickerson, a level behind Curry in his progression, may be the more exciting player if going by pedigree alone. The Bucs' 2011 third-round pick has performed well in his first two seasons, but a good Double-A performance will be crucial for a player who is turning 23 in 2013.
Jose Osuna, a 20-year-old who will be playing his first year of full-season professional baseball (if that much) in 2013, sits at the other end of the spectrum. He is raw, but certainly a player to watch.
The Bucs' third base cupboard is relatively bare at this point; the immediate future lies with Alvarez.