In the past 18 years, there have been a lot of nominal "Future Savior of the Pirates." It comes with the territory; fans of losing teams need hope and that hope will always get heaped on prospects, especially highly regarded ones. I'm not certain I can remember one that's been more hyped than Pedro Alvarez, though.
Besides my obvious bias towards recency, I think that's a reflection of both reality and necessity; Alvarez is certainly a very good prospect with a great pedigree and because the Pirates spent seven years not drafting guys like BJ Upton and Matt Wieters, the 2008 draft is the first one since maybe the Kris Benson pick of 1998 in which it could be logically argued that the Pirates ended up with the best player in the draft (not that that's necessarily true, just that you could say that and not sound like a raving lunatic). But also, Pirate fans need a savior now more than ever before. Kids will soon be graduating high school without ever having experience a season in which the Pirates were more than an afterthought. Simply put, if we can't believe Pedro Alvarez is the Future Savior of the Pirates, there might not be anything to believe in.
This leads, unfortunately, to ridiculous expectations. There is a wide swath of the Pirate fanbase that expects that Alvarez is ready to play for the Pirates (and by play, I mean show up and start launching baseballs into the Allegheney at least three times a week) right now. This might be true, but there's not really any way to know for certain because of how short his minor league career has been.
Alvarez has only played 66 games at High-A and 60 games at Double-A so far, and while those those 60 games at Double-A were spectacular, the 66 games in Lynchburg were very good at best and somewhat troubling at worst due to his enormous strikeout rate there. As a result, the projections for him for 2010 aren't good at all; CHONE sees him as a .231/.299/.395 hitter in 2010 with an enormous 33% K-rate. Of course, projections aren't ever anything more than a handy guide. CHONE sees a hitter that struggled with his strikeouts in High-A in 2009, while it's possible that Alvarez was just a guy working the rust out after a long layoff in a league below his talent level. I suspect that if he played 126 games at Double-A at the level that he played 60 last summer, the projection would be much more optimistic (after one excellent season at Double-A, PECOTA predicted Alex Gordon to hit .282/.363/.509 in 2007, to give you a ballpark idea, and I know that's apples and oranges because Gordon's Double-A numbers were better and PECOTA and CHONE are obviously not the same projection system, but still) But I do still think it's fair to ask just what we should be expecting of Alvarez if and when he does make his debut this summer.
I think the best way to do that is to find hitters he might be similar to and see how they performed at his age. I've said for a while now that I think that maybe the best case scenario for him is to become Prince Fielder; a guy with a ton of power who strikes out a lot but not quite excessively and as a result is a perennial MVP candiate. Fielder isn't quite a 1:1 comparison though, because he was a high school draftee and thus a Major League regular by the age of 22, which is the age Alvarez was last year. His rookie year at age 22 would be a nice debut for Pedro, though, since he hit .271/.347/.483 with 28 homers in 157 games.
Of course, there are other guys to look at. There's always Ryan Howard, who's got monstrous power but isn't nearly as complete of a hitter as Fielder. He was still in High-A at the age of 23, and the Phillies kind of thought of him as a future Brad Eldred (which was funny, because the Pirates didn't trade for him that year because they didn't want toblock Eldred) before he broke out in 2004. His first regular playing time came at the age of 25 in 2005, when he mashed 22 homers in 88 games with a .288/.356/.567 line and the Rookie of the Year Award that was denied to Garrett Jones and Andrew McCutchen last year because Philadelphia is a valid baseball market and Pittsburgh currently is not.
Hoping any player with only 60 games at the Double-A level becomes Ryan Howard or Prince Fielder is at least somewhat wishful thinking, though. At the age of 24, Carlos Pena was supposed to replace Jason Giambi. It took him until he was 29 to find his footing. Justin Morneau didn't hit his stride in Minnesota until he was 25. On a more Pittsburgh- centric level, Garrett Jones took five passes through Triple-A to find his swing. Alex Gordon was rushed to the big leagues after just one Double-A season and he's still struggling to find air. In the past ten years, there have been 84 occasions in which a left-handed hitter hit at least 30 home runs and struck out at least 100 times (cherry-picked numbers, yes, but both seem like reasonable baselines for Alvarez if we're trying to find players that might be good comps for him down the road). Only five of those seasons (Hank Blalock in '04, Fielder in '07 and '08, Adam Dunn in 2004 and Eric Chavez in 2002) were accomplished by players under the age of 25, with six more coming from players during their age 25 seasons. That's not to say Alvarez can't come up and be an immediate force; he's an elite talent and people should have high expectations for him. If we dig back farther into the 1990s, Jim Thome and Carlos Delgado were both more or less fully- formed power hitters by the age of 24. And those are, again, sort of perfect world comparisons for Pedro.
I realize that my point probably seems muddled at this point, but I guess that's sort of my intention here. I think that Pedro Alvarez will be a very good hitter in the majors, but it's incredibly hard to nail down exactly how much development time some of these guys need. Because Alvarez is so well-regarded, it's fair to have high expectations for him, but it's also worth keeping in mind that there's a real chance he'll struggle a bit to open his career and that's not necessarily the end of the world for him.