What to do about Pedro Alvarez? That’s the number one question asked by Pittsburgh Pirates fans during spring training. Alvarez is the highly touted second overall pick from the 2008 draft who signed a $6.4 million contract with a $6 million signing bonus. First called up to the Pirates major league roster in 2010, Alvarez performed well. In 95 games, Alvarez hit .256 with 18 home runs and 64 RBIs.
But in 2011, Alvarez hit .191 and was demoted to AAA Indianapolis mid-season before being called back in September. This spring has been, to put it kindly, a disaster for Alvarez. His batting average is about .150 and he strikes out with alarming regularity. Through Sunday’s games, Alvarez had struck out 24 times and walked once.
Nevertheless, management is poised to start Alvarez at third base with the long shot hope the he’ll get well against major league pitching. At the same time, however, the Pirates are desperate for power, having none to speak of any place in the lineup save for the occasional Garrett Jones dinger. And there seems little reason to send Alvarez back to Indianapolis since that route has been tried without success.
The risk of putting Alvarez on the field day after day is that if he doesn’t perform, the fans will rag him mercilessly. When that happens, and it’s 100 percent certain that it will if Alvarez doesn’t hit, then his psyche would become even more messed up than it already is.
For fans who have endured 19 consecutive losing seasons, Alvarez is symbolic of all that’s wrong with the Pirates.
The Alvarez case has two interesting back stories. First, before he even arrived in Pittsburgh, Alvarez got off on the wrong foot. On August 18, 2008 after finishing his Vanderbilt University career, Alvarez agreed to but did not immediately sign his $6 million Pirates’ contract. When the signing deadline expired, Alvarez was placed on the restricted list. A month later, Alvarez renegotiated a $6.4 million contract. In other words, Alvarez held the Pirates up for $400,000.
Second, after Alvarez flamed out last year manager Clint Hurdle and the front office urged him to play winter ball so that he could practice against high quality players. Alvarez refused. Instead, he chose to “train” in Newport Beach, California. Here’s how Alvarez explained his workout schedule: “Some days I’ll hit for 10 minutes, some days I’ll hit for an hour. I’ll typically be done around noon and then I have the rest of the day just to hang out.”
If you’ve been to Newport Beach, you know that “hanging out” there is a dream vacation that’s not likely to result in a higher batting average.
The 2012 season is crucial for the Pirates and Alvarez. Last year, after a promising start that saw the Pirates in the thick of the National League Central Division race through July, the team fell like a stone. Nevertheless, the Pirates raised ticket prices. The offseason acquisitions, A.J. Burnett, Eric Bedard, Rod Barajas, Casey McGehee, Nate McClouth are aging cast offs. In Burnett’s case, the Yankees were willing to absorb millions from his contract to have him not pitch in New York. Of the 30 teams, only the Pirates were willing to take Burnett despite the Yankees’ subsidy.
As for Alvarez, a .211 career hitter against left handers, he’ll spend most of April on the bench. The Pirates’ early schedule includes games against the Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and the Arizona Diamondbacks. That means Clayton Kershaw, Cole Hamels, Madison Bumgarner as well as the league’s top right handers like Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Roy Halladay.
Baseball is full of surprises. And maybe the 2012 Pirates will once again be among the contenders that take the National League by storm. From this corner, however, a happy ending for the Pirates seems unlikely.