Pittsburgh Pirates 2011 Position Recap: Third Base

Alvarez was a major disappointment in 2011.

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.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

Share This Post On
  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OGCKUSO5MA5VUCJHW2YSJ2K3TM Bob

    Alvarez is a spoiled brat that doesn’t think he has to work hard to be good at this level.   He is fat, lazy and overpaid.  Again, another mistake by our scouting department, should have known these things already.  Could have had Hosmer, Posey, Yonder Alonso, Smoak, Weeks. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6EETLMCYZ754U2G7TFYJMCFPGU HankS

    If Pedro doesnt want to go to the Athlete’s Performance Institute.. I would love to take his spot there!!!!  Right now Im as fat as him I could wear my Pedro Jersey in there and say Im him, just as long as they dont expect me to hit a baseball im good! 

    I think If the Pirates get a nice Vet in there and help Pedro he will turn out fine, hes a young ball player who is going to be very good, we just wanted him to be very good righ now…

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OGCKUSO5MA5VUCJHW2YSJ2K3TM Bob

      “I think If the Pirates get a nice Vet in there”

      Yea right, do you realize how much a veteran 3B would cost them???  That’s not in the budget, neither is winning. 

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6EETLMCYZ754U2G7TFYJMCFPGU HankS

        Bob you know Nutting is looking at prince Filder right now, I heard he laid out an offer that Price could not Refuse!  2mill a yr for 5 yrs–  Free Primantis for 5yrs (yeah im talkn Veggie Sandwich) —- + he gets to run the Pierogi Race whenever he wants!!!!  Thats a huge deal and if im Prince Im taking it, rumor also has it if Prince turns it down then Pujols is in fo sho

      • Anonymous

        Agreed.  The idea of veteran presence is another one of those baseball ideas that needs to go away.  Wasting a spot on the 25-man roster for veteran presence is a terrible misuse (if not abuse) of resources.  Its even worse than situational relievers.

        Isn’t motivating personnel a responsibility of leadership?  Why bring in a veteran player when we have a manager, bench coach, hitting coach, and infield coach, who should be motivating Alvarez to be better?

  • Anonymous

    How about this solution:
    Sign Aramis Ramirez for three years/$55 million

    Sign Derrick Lee for two years/18 million

    Send Pedro to Indy for next year then let him back up or platoon with both player the following year.

    This gives the kid time, line up protection and makes him earn his position. Time for the Pirates to do what you suggest – take away the sense of entitlement or pressure for being the “franchise player”. With the money coming off the books from Doumit and Maholm this should work.

    Time for us Pirate fans to stop selling our expectations for this team short!!

    • Anonymous

      Won’t the Pirates need an exemption or request for an additional option to send Alvarez down next year?

      • Anonymous

        No, I believe he has one more option.

        • Anonymous

          I wouldn’t bet the house on it but he was optioned on August 16th and recalled on September 6th in 2011.  That is longer than the 20 days necessary to burn an option.  Unless baseball counts differently than I do.

          After the messiness associated with his signing, he ended up signing a major league contract in 2008.  He was optioned in 2009 and again in 2010.  

          Because he has less the 5 professional season, the Pirates can request an additional option year.  If they do that, don’t expect much in the way of Scott Boras clients hanging around Pittsburgh long.

          • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

            The Pirates get an extra option year because Alvarez has less than five years of pro experience. It wouldn’t matter whether they took this option or not. No Scott Boras client is going to stick around in Pittsburgh beyond the normal six years of service time.

            • Anonymous

              I agree with that.  I suppose awarding an additional option has become automatic.  Still, it will get ugly if the Pirates go that route with Alvarez.

              Even more reason to lock up McCutchen.

              • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

                If there’s one thing that’s over-exaggerated in Pittsburgh, it’s the perception that with the smallest inconvenience, Scott Boras will hold the franchise hostage and never let any of his clients sign with the Pirates ever again.

                • Anonymous

                  He actually did hold the organization hostage with Alvarez.  Then again, he does it with every team though.  He was the one who started the process of having no one sign (speaking only of drafted players) until the last minute. 

                  Boras will always do one thing, follow the money.  I think Neal has figured that out.  I think that’s why he went after Bell.  With the possibility of a hard slot and having to wait three years if Bell didn’t sign, Neal likely knew that Boras would follow the money and get Bell signed.

  • Anonymous

    The biggest problem the Pirates have with Alvarez next year is HOW LONG
    DO THEY WAIT FOR HIM TO HIT? A back up plan is a good thing, when to
    implement it?
    I do agree that Alvarez has the ability to play 3rd base, he is not making any more errors than any other young player these days and he does make some spectacular plays at times. He also features one of the strongest arms you are going to see at 3rd.
    I do not believe he has a condition problem, I believe he has a confidence problem, anyone that has seen him in batting practice knows he can hit a ball a mile when it does not count.

    I can’t say I agree or disagree with the bringing in a good hitter to help Alvarez, I think they need a good hitter to help the team more.

    Walker is not an option, although I did see him play a couple of times at 3rd and he looked good, he is also built more for a 3rd basemen than a 2nd basemen, but I believe that they want him to stay at 2nd and improve, he can’t improve if he moves back and forth.
    Mercer looks like a 3rd basemen, hits like a 3rd basemen, and plays defense with the range of a 3rd basemen. He looks more like the answer short term than anyone else. Harrison too me is a 2nd basemen. D’Arnaud can’t hit anywhere near good enough for 3rd and Hague is a 1st basemen.

  • Anonymous

    The Pirates are in a hopeless position. All they do is keep moving the same money around.

    Let Maholm and Doumit and Snyder go and maybe sign a high priced 1b. What did they accomplish?

    All they did was weaken two positions to strenghten another.

    Until the farm system is filled with promotable players all they will do is play musical chairs with that same amount of money.

    Too big of a hole was dug for this franchise by previous mgmt. to climb out of it in 4 or 5 years it may take another ten and then it won’t be sustainable unless MLB drastically changes the way it operates and I doubt if the NY’s and Boston’s will allow that along with the players union.

    To get to play with the big boys you have to carry a 100m payroll and if you don’t it’s like walking into Tiffany’s with $2.00 and expecting to get something.     

    • ed_cummings

      According to ESPN the Pirates had a payroll of 45.6M this year which was 27th in MLB (out of 30).  The teams that finished 25th (Arizona) and 29th (Tampa Bay) made the playoffs this year. 5 of the 8 playoff teams had payrolls under $100 million this season, including both teams in the World Series (although St Louis was close).   

      The Pirates don’t need $100 million to compete, they need good drafts, good trades, and good talent development.  

      • Anonymous

        That may not be true, that the Pirates don’t have to spend a certain amount to win.  It may be about how much a team spends compared to what other teams are spending.

        Over the last five years, their appears to be a relationship between spending and winning. Tthe teams that spend the most, the top third spenders (meaning the top ten), win more than they lose at more than twice the rate as a the bottom ten spenders.  Twice as many of the top ten spenders have appeared in the post season than the bottom ten spenders.

        If the Cardinal win this year, that will make 5 years in a row where the winner of the World Series, will have been won by a team in the top ten in higher payroll.  

        The Rays are doing well but they are the exception to the rule.  They are also being very smart in what they do.  To be honest, I haven’t seen that level of intelligence from the Pirates yet.  If one wants to defend low payroll by using the Rays, one has to know how well they’ve done things and also know that one is arguing by exception.