The big thing every Pirates’ fan has been looking forward to for the 2010 season has been the debuts of top prospect Pedro Alvarez, and top pitching prospect Brad Lincoln. So far, those debuts have been a bit of a disappointment. Alvarez is currently hitting for a .114/.158/.171 line in his first 35 at-bats, while Lincoln has a 6.00 ERA, and an 8:8 K/BB ratio in 24 innings of work.
Pirates fans may have been spoiled last year with the debut of Andrew McCutchen. Not only did McCutchen hit for a .286/.365/.471 line in his rookie campaign, but he got off to a fast start, hitting for a .284/.333/.440 line in 109 at-bats during his first month. A prospect breaking in to the majors with no learning curve is very rare, even in cases of top prospects like Pedro Alvarez.
The slow start for Alvarez, however, is more than just the norm for top prospects. This is also a trend in Alvarez’s pro career. Alvarez started off slow in 2009 in Lynchburg, with a .219/.341/.397 line in his first 73 at-bats. In his final 170 at-bats at the level he hit for a .259/.342/.524 line. In his first 45 at-bats in Altoona, Alvarez hit for a .200/.224/.444 line. Alvarez hit for a .368/.466/.626 line in his final 174 at-bats at the level. This year Alvarez started slow in Indianapolis, with a .224/.298/.424 line in his first 85 at-bats. He followed that up with a .314/.406/.608 line in his final 153 at-bats before getting promoted to the majors.
Outside of his start in Altoona, it has taken Alvarez about a month to get adjusted to a new level. His adjustment in Altoona only took about two weeks. I wouldn’t expect him to jump in to the majors flawlessly after showing a history of initially struggling at every level, which is why I’m not concerned over his slow start. Even Justin Smoak, who always seems to be mentioned in the same sentence as Alvarez, struggled to start his major league career. Smoak hit for a .167/.278/.306 line in his first 108 at-bats this year. Since then, he’s hit for a .302/.408/.523 line in his last 86 at-bats. Hopefully the same turnaround happens with Alvarez.
Lincoln is no stranger to struggling at the start of a new level. In 2009 he opened the season in AA, posting a 4.26 ERA, a 7.6 K/9, and a 2.7 K/BB ratio in his first four starts. He followed that with a 1.61 ERA, a 7.9 K/9, and a 4.1 K/BB ratio in his final 56 innings at the level. Lincoln started off with a 5.76 ERA, a 5.8 K/9, and a 1.6 K/BB ratio in his first four starts at AAA. He improved to a 4.17 ERA, a 6.4 K/9, and a 14.5 K/BB ratio in his final 41 innings.
Lincoln struggled to start the 2010 season at the AAA level, with a 4.77 ERA, a 5.7 K/9, and a 2.0 K/BB ratio in 28.1 innings in the month of April. In May and June he rebounded with a 2.03 ERA, an 8.3 K/9, and a 7.4 K/BB ratio in 40 innings. Lincoln has struggled in his first four starts at the major league level, although he’s improved in the last two outings, allowing three earned runs in six innings in both outings. Lincoln’s biggest need is raising his strikeout numbers. Through 24 innings, he has just eight strikeouts.
Pedro Alvarez and Brad Lincoln are two of the most important players in the Pirates’ rebuilding process. Without Alvarez, the future offense has very little punch, and no anchor. Without Lincoln, the short term rotation has no potential leader. The desire to see instant results is understandable, considering the impact on the future these two players have. That said, it’s very early for both players, and the normal adjustment period can’t be overlooked. If both players are still struggling come August, I might start to worry. Until then, I’m fine allowing them to get adjusted to the majors in the middle of a season that has the Pirates challenging for last place in the majors, just as long as they’re major league ready to start the 2011 season.