Last night the Pittsburgh Pirates non-tendered Pedro Alvarez. Whether it came from a non-tender, or a trade later in the off-season, the decision to move on from Alvarez was pretty much set in stone. Nothing is different about this morning when it comes to the off-season plans for the Pirates. They’re still going to be looking at an upgrade for first base, and I don’t think they will be stopping at their current options. The only thing that has changed is that Alvarez is now officially off the roster, instead of expected to be off the roster.
I wanted to take a look at the first base situation this morning, and what the Pirates could do going forward. But first, I wanted to take a brief look back at the Pedro Alvarez era one last time.
The End of an Era
Alvarez was the first big draft pick by Neal Huntington, and he immediately represented a change. The previous General Manager, Dave Littlefield, actively avoided spending in the draft. There were a lot of bad decisions during Littlefield’s drafting tenure, and the one good decision — Andrew McCutchen in the first round in 2005 — was because his scouts begged him to take McCutchen.
The bad decisions all capped off in 2007 when Littlefield passed on top draft prospect Matt Wieters — a Scott Boras client who would demand a huge bonus — and went with a signability pick in Daniel Moskos, who was seen as a lefty reliever who could make the majors quickly. What made matters worse was that Littlefield then committed a lot of money to Matt Morris a month later to upgrade a team that had no shot of winning. That money would have been better off going to the draft.
The Moskos/Morris fiasco was pretty much the final straw for Littlefield. And when Huntington came along, he immediately showed that things were different, with Alvarez being the first sign. The Pirates didn’t make Hail Mary attempts at trying to win with the poor teams they had in 2008-2010. Instead, they increased the draft and international budget, and they weren’t afraid to go after the big bonus guys and enter some tough negotiations, even if they came down to the wire.
In hindsight, and maybe you could have argued this at the time, Buster Posey would have been the much better choice. But the Pirates were basically handcuffed by the Wieters decision the year before. Alvarez was the top rated prospect, represented by Boras, and expected to fall to them at second overall. If they would have taken anyone else, it would have been seen as the same old story, with the Pirates afraid to negotiate with Scott Boras, and unwilling to go for the best talent on the board.
This isn’t to say that Alvarez wasn’t expected to be a good player. He was the highest rated prospect in the draft, and he was expected to be a guy who could carry his team in the future as a middle of the order bat. He was arguably the most anticipated prospect to come through the system in many years. McCutchen ended up the better player, but there simply wasn’t the same hype with McCutchen, as he cemented his team leader ability after jumping to the majors.
On a personal note, Alvarez was so highly anticipated that he was a big reason I started this website. He was slated to play in Lynchburg, VA, which was about 40 minutes from where I lived at the time. I started this site in part to provide a place for live reports of seeing Alvarez.
I don’t really have much insight to give on Alvarez as a prospect. I saw him live maybe 6-7 times before he moved up to Altoona. I didn’t start expanding coverage and going to see other teams until late 2010, at which point he was already in the majors. The only thing I can recall was that he had some strikeout issues, had a tendency to roll over the ball and ground out to second, and I didn’t once see the amazing power that was expected out of him. He did show some power in Lynchburg, but I wasn’t in attendance for any of those games.
Maybe this was all foreshadowing the future, as those problems ended up being problems for Alvarez in the majors. He did improve in the minors, obviously, as you don’t make it far doing what he did in A-ball. But he never became that anchor in the middle of the lineup, or a guy who could carry a team. At his best, he was a good compliment to the lineup, and a guy who could change the game with one swing, but that didn’t quite make up for his other issues.
The overall time that Alvarez spent in Pittsburgh was a mess. He was one of the most polarizing figures that you could find. Either fans loved him because of the home run power, or they hated him for rational and irrational reasons. The rational reasons were that he had poor defense, didn’t quite live up to expectations, and was inconsistent in his career. The irrational reasons ranged from anger over him not playing winter ball or going to mini camp (which stems from the idea that those can do a significant amount to help a player develop), all the way to hating that he wore his hat over his ears.
There were also complaints from the media side because he hated doing interviews, and that probably helped fuel the irrational anger. I experienced that myself on many occasions, including one point this season when I was waiting to interview him following a game in which he hit a key home run. He never showed up at his locker, but was working out in the weight room, occasionally stepping out and looking at the slowly disappearing media group, only to step back in. I eventually left, as did everyone else.
From the media side, that kind of stuff can be annoying when you’ve got a job to do. That wasn’t a one time thing with Alvarez, and it led to a lot of the anger from the media side of things. I never let it impact me, simply because that’s part of the job. Alvarez wasn’t the first player to actively avoid an interview with me. He won’t be the last. In any of those cases, I just get my information elsewhere, and the player ultimately doesn’t have his input added to the story. But I also didn’t have to deal with Alvarez on a daily basis, and I don’t have the specific game-related story requirements that mainstream outlets have, so I can understand if other members of the media were more frustrated and impacted greater by this. Still, that was never a reason to change the perception of Pedro Alvarez, the player.
The best way to describe Alvarez’s time with the Pirates is to call it a roller coaster. On draft day, he was expected to be the face of the franchise. After he signed, there was controversy that he signed after the deadline, which was really just a ploy for Scott Boras to renegotiate his deal and get a better deal than Buster Posey received. He struggled a bit in Lynchburg, then took off in Altoona. He played well in 2010, and his debut provided a lot of hope, including this big moment in August that year, which had you dreaming about all the possibilities in the future, while suffering through a 105 loss team.
The 2010 success didn’t last, as Alvarez struggled in 2011, getting sent down to the minors on a few different occasions. When covering Spring Training in 2012, I can remember countless radio interviews and questions surrounding one topic: Should Alvarez go to Triple-A to start the year? The Pirates added him to the active roster out of Spring Training, which was controversial due to the struggles the year before. He ended up having a good year, and followed that up with another good season in 2013.
The 2014 season rolled around, and Alvarez once again struggled. The offensive struggles weren’t as drastic as 2011. He had a .717 OPS, which was down from his .770-.788 range when he was at his best, but not close to the .561 OPS in 2011. The big issue here was that he developed a case of the yips at third, and could no longer make the throw without putting the lives of everyone sitting in the stands behind first base in danger. This led to him getting replaced at third by Josh Harrison, and led to him moving to first base.
The offense bounced back in 2015. His .787 OPS was just one point below the career best he put up in 2010. Unfortunately, his defense at first base was so horrible that it made him a replacement level player.
The frustrating thing about Alvarez’s career is that there was never any clear reason for his struggles. He was good in 2010, and then horrible in 2011. The strikeout and walk rates were exactly the same in both years, but the power mysteriously disappeared in 2011. His 2012 season was exactly the same, in terms of strikeouts and walks, but the power returned. There was never any answer as to why he just stopped hitting for power in 2011.
Then there’s the defensive struggles late in his career with the Pirates. He was always a guy that was a risk to move to first base in the future, but that was due to his size and the potential for conditioning issues. No one would have guessed that his arm, which was a plus tool when he could throw accurately, would lead to the switch. And yet, mysteriously, he could no longer make the throw from third base once the 2014 season rolled around.
The struggles in 2015 were somewhat understandable, as he was at a new position, and didn’t handle it well. However, you have to wonder why he struggled so much. His issue at third base was throwing, and he didn’t have a problem fielding. His move to first base was a disaster all around, to the point where he couldn’t even make a toss correctly.
A temporary loss in power. A sudden throwing issue at third base. A total lack of any kind of infield fielding abilities. And none of them came with any kind of answers as to why the problems suddenly showed up.
That’s what makes the Alvarez era so frustrating. His upside was supposed to be huge, and he was supposed to lead the team. He fell short, which wasn’t an issue, because he was still a good enough player when he was at his best. But he was never consistent, and the problems he had could never be explained.
What made it more frustrating is that Alvarez was fun to watch when he was on his game. When he hit a home run, it was unlike any other home run you saw. The sound it made. The distance it traveled so quickly. It was like hitting a golf ball with a tree that you’re using for a bat. Other players hit long home runs, and hit a lot of home runs, but no one ever could replicate that dense wooden knock sound off the bat, where you just know it’s gone immediately.
The Pirates will now move on, and the Alvarez era is over. He wasn’t the leader of the franchise, although he certainly helped the last few years, highlighted by his impressive series in the NLDS in 2013 that helped push the Pirates to a deciding Game 5 against the Cardinals. It’s easy to point out why he didn’t reach his upside: the strikeouts. But there are no easy answers for the random struggles he had along the way. Without those, we’d have a much different story this off-season, looking at one final year where Alvarez is a below-average defensive third baseman who can make the throw to first, and whose consistent offense makes him a 2-2.5 WAR player. Instead, we move on to discuss a way to upgrade first base, now that Alvarez is gone.
The Future at First Base
The Pirates currently have Michael Morse, Jake Goebbert, and Josh Bell on the 40-man roster. Bell is the future at first base, but isn’t going to be ready at the start of the year, and won’t be ready until mid-season at the earliest. That’s not a Super Two thing, but due to actual developmental issues with his game. He is also learning first base, and like Alvarez, he has really struggled with the change. You can understand why he has struggled, since he’s never played the infield before. But there is still a lot to work on. He improved during the season, but only from a level of zero positional knowledge to being a bad option at first base. If the Pirates brought him up now, they’d be getting Pedro Alvarez’s defense again, in a best case scenario.
Offensively, Bell has a lot of raw power and some of the best pure hitting ability in all of minor league baseball (this assessment comes from multiple conversations about him with scouts) due to some amazing hand-to-eye contact skills. He is much better from the left side, where the swing is smooth and the power comes easy. As I’ve written many times over the last few years, there are some issues with the swing from the right side. The power doesn’t come easy there, and the swing is awkward, with a two part movement that leaves him too top half heavy at times, with no incorporation of the lower half in the swing. His hands are so good that this approach can lead to a good average, but he’d have a difficult time hitting for power consistently. I have seen flashes where the swing from the right side looks smooth, and shows some power potential, but that’s not consistent.
Bell made an adjustment to his swing from the left side in Indianapolis this year, and the results came almost immediately. He adjusted his leg kick — something he had been working on in Altoona earlier in the year — and the result was that he started hitting for more power. We’ll need to see more of that in 2016 to show that it wasn’t just a small sample size, but the results so far are an encouraging step.
Bell isn’t an option on Opening Day because his defense is a wreck and he still needs to fully tap into his hitting abilities from both sides. Fortunately, as we saw with the adjustment in Indianapolis, all it takes is the right change, and things can suddenly click. The Pirates will hope for that to happen next year, as they need Bell for the future at first base. This potential for a sudden improvement is also why I’m not worried about Bell’s fielding or hitting from the right side just yet. That’s why he’s in the minors, to develop those issues.
Until Bell arrives, the Pirates currently have Morse and Goebbert. They’re not limited to those options, since there are still two and a half months until Spring Training. I’d expect them to add more options this off-season, and a few interesting names hit the free agent market yesterday when Chris Carter and Ike Davis were non-tendered. I love the power potential from Morse, and feel he can bounce back from his down year. That said, I think a safe play would be to have another option available, in the event that Morse doesn’t bounce back.
Goebbert doesn’t project to be that option. Instead, he looks like depth out of Triple-A, replacing Andrew Lambo, who was lost to the Athletics earlier this off-season.
The truth is that it’s not going to be hard to upgrade over Alvarez. He was replacement level last year, so even if the Pirates got a bad hitting version of Morse as their replacement, they’re not going to lose much value. Still, you’d like to upgrade the position, especially when the Pirates could see some fluctuation at other positions. I’d be very surprised if the Pirates left their options at just Morse and Goebbert for the start of the year.