While the Pirates front office has done a good job constructing a winner through unheralded free agent acquisitions and some shrewd trades, the most promising progress has come from the first wave of Pittsburgh’s recent early-first-round draft picks.
Most notably, third baseman Pedro Alvarez.
When the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted the left-handed slugger out of Vanderbilt in 2008, his selection was thought to be the first indication that the new boss—first year General Manager Neal Huntington—was not the same as the old boss.
Alvarez, a Scott Boras client, was expected to sign at far above his slotted value as the second-overall pick. He did, agreeing to a contract with a $6 million signing bonus at the deadline’s eleventh hour. The signing was a sharp departure from the practices of the Dave Littlefield regime, which had become notorious for drafting affordable but questionable talent.
Expectations since placed on Alvarez have been rich enough to match his signing bonus.
Pittsburgh drafted a good one in Alvarez. In his senior season at Vanderbilt, Alvarez finished with a .397 average, 17 home runs, 65 RBI, 72 runs, .467 OBP and .706 slugging percentage. He moved quickly through the Pirates’ professional ranks after that, making his single-A debut in 2009 and MLB debut some 200 games later in mid-2010.
“Pedro Alvarez is an accomplished college hitter with the potential to be a middle-of-the-order bat at the Major League level for us. Equally important, he is a quality young man who comes from a very strong family. We appreciate their trust in the Pirates organization. Pedro is a high-end talent. We are excited to add him to our system and about the potential impact he can have.”
Alvarez’ truncated rookie season was impressive. He finished with 16 home runs and a .461 slugging percentage in just 95 games, good enough to earn him a spot on the Opening Day roster in 2011.
Although Alvarez struggled though an injury-shortened 2011 season and the early parts of 2012, his bat seems to be rounding into form of late. The third baseman follows only McCutchen in most team offensive categories, ranking third in runs (44) and hits (67), second in home runs (21), RBI (58), OPS (.795) and slugging percentage (.497).
“El Toro,” as he’s called, is also batting .246 in July and finished June with a .262 average after posting a .205 average from April-May that had many wondering if he shouldn’t have skipped team-recommended winter league ball, or spend some time in the minors (Alvarez earned only 426 AAA plate appearances over parts of two seasons, compared to 881 for McCutchen or more than 1,000 for Neil Walker).
If a .246 July average and .229 season average don’t seem like much, it’s little cause for concern. Alvarez was considered a middle-of-the-order prospect who would hit not for contact, but for power. So far, his numbers reflect that pedigree.
Alvarez ranks seventh on the Pirates in batting average (minimum 200 at-bats), but his power numbers rank in the top-two or -three of the lineup. At his current pace, he projects to finish the season with 36 home runs, 115 hits and 100 RBI. Combined with a traditionally low batting average and high K-rate (Alvarez leads the club with 102 strikeouts in 86 games played), El Toro’s 2012 season is becoming that of a classic power hitter.
There are plenty of ways for the young slugger to improve. His high strikeout numbers, low batting average and team-leading 14 errors are all causes for concern.
However, Alvarez is more consistently displaying the five-tool potential the Pirates spent so much money to acquire in 2008, and it’s no small part of why the the team is contending for its first winning season and playoff berth since the early 90s.
Stats courtesy Yahoo! Sports & FanGraphs.com