Pedro Alvarez: Starting Third Baseman, Organizational Bellwether

PITTSBURGH, PA - Pedro Alvarez #24 of the Pittsburgh Pirates looks on while warming up during the game against the St. Louis Cardinals. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

As Pedro Alvarez goes, so do the Pittsburgh Pirates. Or is it the other way around?

Pedro Alvarez was supposed to be a make-good draft pick. He was supposed to be the chosen one, the player who signified that the Pirates were serious about winning.

The Pirates took Daniel Moskos over Matt Wieters in the 2007 draft because of money. Pirates fans lit Molotov cocktails and politely asked the organization to try harder the following year. Alvarez was talented enough to be considered for the first overall pick in the 2008 draft, and the Pirates were elated to take him at #2, picking him over Eric Hosmer, Buster Posey, Yonder Alonso, and Brett Lawrie, among others.

Pedro Alvarez was supposed to be a fast mover. He wasn't supposed to languish in the minors, and he finished 2009 with a .333/.419/.590 performance in AA. Going into the 2010 season, he was the #8 prospect in baseball. After an up-and-down start in AAA, he was promoted to the majors and hit .256/.326/.461 with 16 home runs and 21 doubles in 347 at-bats. For a rookie season, that was promising, especially the power.

Here's what he did last year:

Year Age AB 2B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2011 24 235 9 4 24 80 .191 .272 .289 .561
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table Generated 4/2/2012.


He was basically Carlos Zambrano without power. His strikeouts jumped way up. His plate discipline got worse. He struggled with a quad injury. When he made contact, it was weak. The power -- even the doubles power -- was gone. It was a miserable season.

That's okay, though. Shake it off, right?. Lots of hitters had miserable second seasons after coming into the league highly touted. Carlos Quentin was a total wreck, for example. It happens.

And that's why the Pirates committed to Alvarez early in this spring, flatly stating that the third baseman is not going to start the season in the minors:

"We don't want to respond over-the-top to good or bad (performance)," Huntington said. "Certainly, there are some areas of concern. There's been some positive signs as well."

Seems like a fair way to deal with a lousy spring performance. I mean now lousy can his spring have been ...

AB HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
49 2 1 22 .163 .176 .286 .462

Southern belles faint. Men run to the restroom, hand over mouth. Dogs howl. It's not like Alvarez has been hitting into bad luck. He's struck out in almost half of his plate appearances. Dejan Kovacevic described it as "utterly cringeworthy."

We're into the zone where stats aren't going to help us. It doesn't matter what Alvarez's minor-league OPS was, or what he did when he was a rookie. This is almost like the hitter's version of Steve Blass Disease. Alvarez is ostensibly healthy. He just can't hit at all. Before it was an insult to compare him to Carlos Zambrano. He wishes he were Carlos Zambrano. Instead, his spring stats are almost a dead ringer of what Cliff Lee did last year.

Adding to the pressure: There might not be a young player in the game whose struggles are more directly tied to the team's rebuilding plans, and Alvarez knows it, as he told Kovacevic.

"I'm aware that, if I produce, I can be a great asset to the team. I've been part of some teams where, when I've done well, the team's done well. That's obvious."

It's more than that. Alvarez was supposed to be the metaphor, the one player who symbolized a new regime and a new direction for the Pirates. He was supposed to be a majors-ready slugger who didn't need to get a lot of minor-league instruction. He was a safe bet, something the Pirates couldn't possibly screw up.

That isn't to suggest that the Pirates screwed him up after all. Something did, though. And Pirates are going to hope he fixes it in the majors. Is that the right decision? Heck, I don't know. I'm pretty sure that the Pirates don't either. No one does. It's probably not a bad rule of thumb to go reflexively against the Pirates' decision, but that's pretty cynical.

When the Pirates were fighting for first place in the first half of last season, this is why almost every baseball fan was rooting for them. This is the kind of thing that happens to the Pirates. Of course Pedro Alvarez is completely lost in a way that was never expected of him. Of course it's the Pirates that have to figure it all out. It's uncharted territory for a young player who means about as much to his team as any young player possibly could, but it's quite charted territory for the Pirates, at least in a general sense.

There shouldn't be a lot of pressure, other than that part about the "young player who means about as much to his team as any young player possibly could." It's a mess. But there's a reason no one remembers what anyone hit last spring. These things don't mean anything. The Pirates -- and, heck, most baseball fans with some sense of empathy -- are hoping that this is just a spring blip on the way to a breakout season.

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