Next journey for the Pirates’ John Jaso is first base

John Jaso fields a ball while working out at first base during the first day of Pirates minicamp Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. (AP)

 

BRADENTON, Fla. — John Jaso stood near first base on Pirate City’s Field 2, thinking about keeping his fingertips down. Full-squad workouts hadn’t started yet, but Jaso was working with infield coach Nick Leyva and special assistant Kevin Young, attempting to perfect an unfamiliar position.

Other infielders intentionally bounced balls in front of the bag, forcing Jaso to scoop the throws. “Do it, Jase!” Gift Ngoepe would yell when he snagged one. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!” was Jordy Mercer’s encouragement.

The Pirates once again are relying on a first baseman who lacks extensive experience at the position. Unlike the 2015 season, when Pedro Alvarez’s throwing problems at third forced him across the diamond, the notion of Jaso at first has existed for a while.

And Jaso, a catcher and designated hitter by trade, saw it as an opportunity to continue to play defense.

Jaso, 32, who arrived in camp with dreadlocks, is a thoughtful guy. When he’s not reading philosophy and theology books, he’s reading Dan Brown novels.

He travels in the offseason. He hit Madrid, Barcelona and Italy this past winter, exploring Capri, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast before touring the crypts and catacombs of Rome.

He’s an outdoorsman. His big offseason trip after the 2014 season was a backpacking expedition in Patagonia. He proposed to his wife, Shannon, while backpacking northern California’s Trinity Alps in 2012.

When two concussions from foul tips ended his season in 2013 and 2014, he realized the danger in getting back behind the plate.

“It was taking me a long time to come back from them,” Jaso said. “Basically, it was putting me into harm’s way. Also, I was getting this fragile stigma about me, as far as other teams, going, ‘Is he going to be able to be healthy?’ ”

Jaso has played a total of five innings across two games, neither of them starts, at first base in the majors. His minor league experience there brings the total to 18 games, two of them starts, and 20 total innings. Although Jaso was a catcher, he is not built like a slow, plodding backstop: He is 6 feet 2, 205 pounds and athletic.

“Four or five years ago was the first time that we approached this thought of John Jaso as a first baseman for us somewhere down the road,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “… This wasn’t something we stumbled upon this offseason. This is something we’ve targeted in the past.”

That was when Jaso was still in the Tampa Bay organization that drafted him in 2003 in the 12th round out of Southwestern College in Chula Vista, Calif. In 2010, Jaso’s first full season in the majors, he had a .372 on-base percentage in a career-high 404 plate appearances and finished fifth in the American League rookie of the year voting.

The Rays traded Jaso to the Seattle Mariners after the 2011 season. He joined the Oakland Athletics before the 2013 season in the same trade that shipped his current platoon partner, Michael Morse, from the Washington Nationals to the Mariners. The Ben Zobrist trade with Oakland before the 2015 season sent Jaso back to Tampa Bay.

In parts of seven seasons in the majors, Jaso has a .361 OBP and walked more often than he struck out in two different seasons. A left-handed hitter who will complement right-handed Morse at first, Jaso fits into what Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle want: An offense that scores by putting balls in play, runners on base and limiting strikeouts after the loss Alvarez and Neil Walker removed power from the lineup. Jaso hurt his wrist on opening day in 2015 and didn’t return until early July, but hit .286/.380/.459 in 216 plate appearances.

“It was a guy who the bat has always intrigued us,” Hurdle said. “To plug that bat in the lineup for a large volume of at-bats, the on-base percentage, the barrel-to-ball contact, the gap power.”

The offense is there. Now, Jaso works on defense. He fields grounders and flips them to a pitcher covering first, then practices turning 3-6-3 double plays, all the while reminding himself to keep his fingertips down — hold the glove with the palm facing up, rather than down, the way a catcher does.

“I feel like I’m a pretty coachable guy,” Jaso said. “I think it’s going to be a pretty good transition. Catcher at heart, so being in the way of balls coming really fast in the dirt, all the action stuff, is nothing new to me.”

When the drills concluded, the infielders gathered near the mound. Jaso fist-bumped everybody. He’s one of them now.