There wasn’t any bigger disappointment in the Pittsburgh Pirates season in 2011 than what happened with Pedro Alvarez. Alvarez, drafted in the first round of the 2008 draft, has been the center piece of this current rebuilding process. Ever since he was drafted, he was seen as a guy who could potentially carry the lineup as a 30-40 home run per year power hitter. He started showing his power at the end of the 2010 season, when he hit for a .280/.348/.493 line with nine homers in 207 at-bats from August until the end of the season.
The hope was that Alvarez figured things out after some initial struggles, and that he would carry the success of the final two months over to the 2011 season. Unfortunately, he didn’t come close to those numbers.
Alvarez started the season with a slow month of April, hitting for a .200 average with a .536 OPS. He improved some in the month of May, with a .713 OPS and a .229 average. The numbers aren’t anywhere near what you want to see from the guy who is supposed to carry your lineup. However, as a sign of how bad the season was, that happened to be the best month of the year for Alvarez.
Alvarez went on the disabled list at the end of May, and was expected to return in early July. Struggles in AAA changed those plans. The Pirates optioned Alvarez to AAA, where he remained for a few weeks, up until Chase d’Arnaud was placed on the disabled list. With Alvarez tearing up AAA pitching, the Pirates recalled him at the end of July. He looked like he was turning things around in the first week of August with Derrek Lee in the lineup. Alvarez went 6-for-16 in four games with Lee, only to go back on a slump that ended up with him being optioned to AAA once again.
The AAA season ended and Alvarez returned to the majors in September, but didn’t start every day. Instead, he was put in for favorable matchups, and even that resulted in poor stats, with a .171 average and a .623 OPS. On the season, Alvarez finished with a .191 average and a .561 OPS in 235 at-bats, a year after he hit for a .256 average and a .788 OPS in 347 at-bats.
The struggles from Alvarez allowed a few other players to step up and receive playing time at third base. Brandon Wood was claimed off of waivers early in the season, and saw a lot of time at third base when Alvarez was in the minors. Wood, once a top prospect himself, hit for a .220/.277/.347 line, which was the best OPS of his short pro career, but nothing close to what you’d want from the third base position.
Josh Harrison also got the call from AAA, after hitting for a .310/.365/.460 line in 226 at-bats with Indianapolis. In the majors, Harrison hit for a .272/.281/.374 line in 195 at-bats. The highlight of the year was a strong month of August where Harrison hit for a .326/.348/.558 line in 43 at-bats, getting a lot of playing time with Alvarez in AAA. Harrison didn’t carry that over to September, hitting for a .246/.246/.351 line in 57 at-bats.
What to do with Alvarez
There was a lot of talk about Alvarez and winter ball towards the end of the year. The Pirates wanted Alvarez to play winter ball, and Alvarez refused, although they left the table open for Alvarez to play later in the off-season. Because of the importance of Alvarez to the team’s future, fans want to see some kind of corrective action to try and bounce back from the 2011 season. Winter ball would provide the best chance for the fans to see “progress”, although the stats don’t really mean much, and don’t guarantee anything for the 2012 season.
I’ve always thought that Alvarez should return to Athlete’s Performance Institute, which is the boot camp of sports training facilities. Alvarez attended API in the 2009-2010 off-season, and it seemed to benefit him, as he showed up in great shape for the 2010 season, and had some good results in the majors that year. He didn’t attend API last off-season, although that’s not to say this was the reason for his struggles.
A lot of people will want to compare Alvarez with guys like Brandon Wood, who came up and never really lives up to their hype. I don’t think Alvarez really fits in that category. Wood has never accomplished anything in the majors. Prior to this year, his best stretch in the majors saw a .551 OPS in 150 at-bats (he did have a .559 OPS one year, but that was a smaller sample size of 41 at-bats). Alvarez came up in his rookie year and hit for a .788 OPS. I think that if you do that, it shows that you’ve got the talent to play in the majors. The question for Alvarez is: how do the Pirates get that talent out of him?
I think the whole “franchise player” thing is the wrong approach. It’s a lot of pressure for a 23-24 year old to be expected to carry a young lineup, and serve as the only power hitter in the lineup, all while adjusting to the majors. You look at other top prospects-turned-power hitting stars like Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard. Fielder came up with the protection of Carlos Lee and Geoff Jenkins. Ryan Howard came up with the lineup being carried by Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell. Neither player was expected to carry the lineup right away. Howard was the number six hitter for most of his rookie season, while Fielder hit fifth, behind Lee and Jenkins.
The best thing going forward for Alvarez might be some protection. The Pirates only had one hitter with an OPS over .800 (two if you count Alex Presley at the end of the year), which didn’t provide much protection or much of a threat in the middle of the order. There was no threat. I don’t think it’s a surprise that Alvarez did so well those few games when he hit behind Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick. It’s a small sample size of three games, but those three games were the only time in the season where Alvarez had two established hitters in front of him.
It’s tough enough to try and make the successful jump to the majors. Trying to make that jump while also being expected to carry a lineup is even more difficult. The best approach for 2012 might not have anything to do with winter ball, or Pedro’s off-season workout plans. The best approach might be to add an established hitter to the lineup, taking the pressure off of Alvarez by making it so that the Pirates aren’t depending on him to carry the team.
Alternatives to Alvarez
A big problem with Alvarez struggling is that the Pirates don’t really have anyone to replace him. That’s true both at the third base position, and when talking about candidates to carry a lineup. The Pirates don’t have many third base prospects, with the only one in the top two levels being Jeremy Farrell. Farrell is poor defensively, even more than Alvarez, and is also injury prone. Aside from that, he lacks the power that Alvarez has, although he is a good hitter when healthy.
The Pirates do have guys who could play third base. Josh Harrison is one of those guys. His .656 OPS from his rookie year wasn’t desirable, although it wouldn’t be fair to write him off for that while giving Alvarez a chance to come back. Ultimately Alvarez has more upside, but Harrison is an interesting backup plan should Alvarez continue to struggle. A big concern is his lack of walks, although that’s not a huge concern. I’ve always seen Harrison as a Freddy Sanchez type. He swings at everything, including stuff he probably doesn’t have any business swinging at in the first place. He doesn’t walk because of this, but he also doesn’t strike out much because of his great contact skills. I think best case, you’re looking at a .300 average, an .800 OPS, and good defense from third base. However, that’s far from a guarantee, as hitters who struggle drawing walks don’t usually see a lot of success in the majors. The guys like Sanchez or David Eckstein, who have success despite low walk rates, are rare.
One of the better alternatives might be Jordy Mercer, based on the power he showed in 2011. Mercer led the minor league organization with 19 homers in 491 at-bats. He’s competing for a long term shortstop job, although his power potential could make him an option at third base. He might not have the power potential that you want from a third baseman, but he is a guy who can provide good defense at third base and 15-20 homers a year, assuming he shows that the 2011 season wasn’t a fluke.
Matt Hague played 17 games at third base in 2011 at Indianapolis, and is playing there in winter ball. He’s a guy who could play third base, also his range is poor, and he’s best suited as a first baseman. I could see him playing third base as a bench player, but not in an every day role.
One option could be to move Neil Walker back to third base, although this is only something I’d try as a last resort. I’d go this route if Alvarez didn’t work out, and if someone was ready to step up in the majors at second base. Other than that, I think it would be better to keep Walker at second, and keep Alvarez at third.
That also brings up the talk of moving Alvarez to first base. His defense isn’t ideal, but it’s not horrible. With the lack of a better option, there’s no need to move Alvarez over to first base just yet. This is a common trend with prospects. A scouting report comes out saying a player might end up in a role eventually, and from that point forward the focus is only on moving that player to his eventual role. Alvarez isn’t the best third baseman defensively, but he’s good enough to play there now, and with no other option, it makes no sense to move him. There’s the suggestion of moving Alvarez to first, Walker to third, and adding a second baseman. It would make more sense to keep Walker and Alvarez put, and add a first baseman. In each situation, you’ve got Alvarez and Walker in the lineup, which is a wash. The difference is that you’ve got a first baseman in one scenario, and a second baseman in the other scenario. The offensive upgrade of the first baseman would be worth more than the defensive impact of moving everyone around just to get Alvarez to first base.
Looking at the options, it’s clear to see why the Pirates need Alvarez to succeed. There are some good players that they could go to if he doesn’t rebound in 2012, although none of those players really have the upside that Alvarez has. The Pirates lack third base options, which isn’t really a surprise, since they’ve been banking on Alvarez to succeed. Ideally he will bounce back in 2012, and will start realizing his potential. I think that will take an established bat in the lineup to help him out and take some of the pressure off of him. If he can turn his game around, and become the player the Pirates hoped for, it would provide a huge boost to the Pirates in their quest to compete over the next few years.