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Do Bucs need a backup plan for third base?

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Jared Triolo could provide insurance in case Ke’Bryan Hayes can’t bounce back from wrist issue

COLLEGE BASEBALL: APR 29 Houston at ECU

When it comes to the Pittsburgh Pirates, there’s usually plenty of uncertainty to go around.

But entering the 2021 season, one position that seemed locked up for the better part of a decade or so was third base.

Ke’Bryan Hayes burst on the scene part-way through the truncated 2020 coronavirus season and looked like Superman in cleats, hitting .376 with a 1.124 OPS, showing pop that he’d never exhibited while coming up through the Minors.

No one figured Hayes would put up those types of numbers in 2021, but many thought even if he regressed to a more realistic level, he could be one of the National League’s top third baseman, given his all-world defensive abilities.

Then the 2021 season actually started, and it was pretty much a living nightmare for Hayes, at least offensively. Hampered by injuries – first to his left wrist and then later to his right hand after he slammed a batting helmet in the dugout – Hayes appeared in only 96 games and batted a disappointing .257 with a .689 OPS. After homering five times in 95 plate appearances in 2020, he managed just one more round-tripper in ’21 – in 396 plate appearances.

No one was more disappointed than Hayes, who told Rob Biertempfel of The Athletic that he was playing hurt the entire second half of the season before being shut down in late September. But Hayes also said he’s confident that last year’s injury woes won’t carry over to 2022.

“I’m not worried about it at all,” he told Biertempfel. “Next year, I know I’m going to drive the ball once I get this figured out and get my legs back under me. I’ll be fine.”

But what if he isn’t?

I have no reason to suspect he won’t be, but what if for some strange reason Hayes’ wrist has an issue that ends up dogging him not only next year but beyond? It’s not likely, but strange injuries – and the unexpected in general – can happen in any sport, including baseball. Sometimes, all it can take is one pitch – like the one that struck a rising young shortstop named Dickie Thon in the eye and derailed what could have been a brilliant career.

That’s why, even with a seemingly sure thing like Hayes penciled in at third base for the next half-decade or so, it’s important for the Pirates to have a plan B. And they might have just uncovered one this past season in the form of Jared Triolo.

The 23-year-old Triolo was rated as the No. 115 prospect in the 2019 amateur draft by Baseball America, but the Pirates made him their supplemental second-round selection – 72nd overall — out of the University of Houston. He spent that year in the short-season New York-Penn League, where he put up rather pedestrian numbers: a .239 batting average and a .703 OPS with two home runs and 34 RBIs in 60 games.

The 6-foot-3, 212-pound Triolo lost his 2020 season to the pandemic but came back in 2021 and was among the many bright spots at High-A Greensboro. In 421 at-bats, Triolo hit .304 with a .369 on-base percentage and a .480 slugging percentage for an OPS of .849. He finished with 15 home runs and 78 RBIs and also managed 25 stolen bases. His .304 batting average was No. 2 in the High-A East division; his 78 RBIs were third, his stolen base total was sixth and his OPS seventh.

In the field, Triolo more than held his own, taking home the Pirate organization’s Bill Mazeroski Defensive Player of the Year award. He played 102 games at third base and five at shortstop. At third he posted a .961 fielding percentage.

While not exactly young for his level, Triolo wasn’t old, either. He would figure to earn a promotion to Double-A Altoona, where he would see regular duty at third, but it would behoove the Pirates to move him around a bit.

Triolo’s 2021 season might have opened a few eyes, but he’s still not considered among the Bucs’ top prospects. He doesn’t show up on MLB Pipeline’s top 30 and is ranked No. 44 by FanGraphs. But perhaps he’s a late bloomer and one who benefited from the year away from the Minor League grind in 2020. In any event, it’ll be interesting to see how he handles the next rung on the ladder in 2022 – assuming there is a 2022.