Baseball: Past and Present

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.



5 Comments so far

  1.    Brian on April 4, 2012 4:11 pm      

    I hadn’t seen the story about Alvarez’s off-season training before, but it certainly is interesting.

    While it would be great if he had come into spring training with stories of marathon sessions in the batting cages and hours upon hours of video review, I don’t think the type of work he talked about putting in over the winter should necessarily be considered a bad thing.

    Look at it this way: if he had gone to winter ball and played against top competition, it would have put more pressure on him to succeed. You mentioned the fear of him not playing well this season and being destroyed mentally by the fans. If he had played somewhere this off-season and things hadn’t gone well, he might have been behind the eight ball from the start of the regular season.

    The way he handled things, however, he got his work in, then made sure to take care of himself mentally. So now he’s coming into the season relatively fresh (I know he had a rough spring, but it’s easy to write that off with the, “Hey, it’s only spring training!” reasoning) and hopefully in better shape to compete both mentally and physically.

    I obviously don’t know if that’s his mindset, but if it is, I think it’s got some merit.

  2.    Ed Stankowski on April 13, 2012 5:19 am      

    Pedro Alvarez was and continues to be the Pirates’ “Great Brown Hope.” More like a brown-out. Simply put, Alvarez is not ready for prime time. The Alvarez quandry illustrates yet again that the Pirates do not know how to develop players.
    Q: Who was the last power hitter to come out of the Bucs’ system?
    A: Aramis Ramirez at the turn of the century.
    Pirates brass should ship Alvarez to AA and let us forget about him until he earns a promotion to AAA–maybe sometime in 2013. Right now, he just doesn’t belong in the majors–even on a squad as pitiful as the Pirates. The Bucs can win their 60 games this year without him.

  3.    John Urso on April 13, 2012 5:31 am      

    At first, I thought Alvarez would be like Willie Stargell, overweight & unable to hit Lefties. But Willie dedicated himself to being great. Alvarez is dedicating himself to be what ever he thinks is right for him, not the Pirate Organization.

    Send him down to 2A A league. he has to earn his way back up. I think he could be back by July..

    What’s the use of having him on the bench or only playing a few games a week.

  4.    Joe Elinich on April 13, 2012 6:57 am      

    He looks lost. After an abysmal Spring he has struck out 50% of the time so far this season. They are spotting him against weak(?) lefties like Capuano last night and he strikes out looking and swinging. He has GOT to start swinging earlier in the count but the way in which he fouls off so many pitches that he does swing at right now it only digs a deeper hole. He did himself NO favor by not playing in the winter and the timeline in his article on what he did do over the winter does not sit well with this fan. If he rose at seven AM and was finished by noon that means – at best – he put in four hours work for a million plus dollar signing bonus, prorated yearly. Most people work eight hours and don’t get to hang out at the beach. Let’s just be glad MLB did not do their Matt Kemp commercial using Pedro’s workout schedule. To take a line from Kemp’s closing line, somebody needs to “tell Pedro that being an athlete ain’t easy”.

  5.    David Mitchell on April 13, 2012 12:11 pm      

    I did notice his cap sits above the ears this season.

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  • Written by Graham Womack