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02/29/12 3:45 PM EST
Who's on first? Jones, McGehee unlikely duo
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
BRADENTON, Fla. -- In the National League of recent years, the glamor position has been first base. Five of the last seven Most Valuable Players played that position, which is a lot of clout. It has also been a position of power: Six of the last nine NL home run kings were first basemen. The Pirates believe in the power of two. Clint Hurdle is placing the key position in the hands of two migrants from other parts of the field, neither of whom has logged much recent time at the gateway. Garrett Jones was drafted 14 years ago out of high school as a first baseman and predominantly played the position in the Minors, but made fewer than a third of his starts there last season. Casey McGehee is virtually a total stranger to first base, spending most of his pro career in the other corner of the infield.
Other corner infielders are in the early picture, like prospect Matt Hague and non-roster big league vets Jake Fox, Nick Evans ands Jeff Clement. However, Jones and McGehee are the ones in the spotlight and on the spot. In response to any suggestion the Bucs left themselves vulnerable at first base, Jones and McGehee go on the defensive -- which is the easier part. "I've been there enough," McGehee said. "When you play third, at some point you're going to wind up there. Biggest thing, I guess, is coming off the bag from holding on runners. "You still gotta pick ground balls, and I've done that plenty. Throws in the dirt? It's just another ground ball, no?" "I bounced back-and-forth between the outfield and first base for a couple of years," Jones said. "There's a slightly different arm action at first, but it's just again getting used to being in the infield day in and day out. It's nice to be told to get all my reps at first base, to just keep my mind there." It's on the other side of the ball where the two face a bigger challenge. Hurdle has designs on this being a very aggressive team, one that compensates for a considerable shortage of power with a running game. Stealing bases may be an alternative for others, but not for McGehee and Jones, a pair of big men who have to be counted on to do damage with their bats. Both four-year veterans have personal track records to suggest they could add up to big first-base muscle. McGehee has hit 23 homers once and Jones has hit 21 twice. Unless one of them goes totally off during the Grapefruit League, claiming the position for his own, it sets up as a classic platoon of two comparable players who hit from opposite sides of the plate. "A beautiful part of the game is that a lot of times, the players answer any questions we might have," said general manager Neal Huntington. "Both will battle, and if one of them steps up to take the job, it will mean he has played real well. Or it'll turn into a platoon situation. Things take care of themselves on the field." "The way we drew it up gives us protection from both sides," Hurdle said. "They just give us more weapons. When one of them is playing, the other will give us an advantage off the bench, for matchups late in games." "I still think the guy who is performing better will be out there more," said Jones, minimizing the left-right angle. "Casey has been a great, consistent big league hitter. Whoever is swinging the bat better will be out there. I don't think it will come down to left-right." Each has an inside track for claiming the position outright. McGehee historically has hit right-handers better (lifetime .266 average) than Jones has hit southpaws (.199) and, although he struggled last season, McGehee also has a good track record off lefties. Jones has the edge of also throwing left-handed, a tremendous defensive advantage at the position. A platoon arrangement could present risks. McGehee has never been in that situation, and his ability to adapt is an unknown. Jones did it extensively for the first time last season -- when he split time in right field with Matt Diaz -- and wasn't very adept at it. "It's a total adjustment," Jones said. "Getting pinch-hit for, or coming off the bench ... it's something I learned a lot about last year." One thing evidently not lacking is the confidence of their fellow infielders, who would seem to have a vested interest in the first baseman taking their throws. "Whoever is there, my job is to get the ball there in the air, hopefully in an area where they can stay on the bag," said shortstop Clint Barmes. "If that doesn't happen, it's on me. Personally, I have total confidence that I can do that, and whoever there can catch it. This isn't an issue."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.