Part three in the intermittently-timed season preview-type posts as the 2012 season approaches.
I've started and abandoned at least three different Pedro Alvarez posts this winter. The problem with all of them was that every single time I get the basic Pedro Alvarez facts laid out, I have no idea where to go with them next. Here are the things about Alvarez that I am sure of on March 27, 2012:
- When the Pirates called Pedro Alvarez up in 2010, there sure didn't seem like there was any reason to keep him in the minors any longer.
- The number of times Pedro Alvarez struck out after his call-up in 2010 was concerning to me, but in general his rookie performance wasn't all that far out of line from what I had expected from him.
- Alvarez was abjectly terrible last year, and he was terrible in a way that genuinely worried me.
- Alvarez is absolutely too young to be considered a bust based on what we've seen from his Pirate career.
- Spring training stats are useless.
- When people say that spring training stats are useless, they mean that spring training stats are useless in a vacuum, which is usually how people try to use them. If a guy has an awful year in which he can barely hit the ball and he strikes out a lot, then shows up at spring training the next year and can barely hit the ball and he strikes out a ton, being concerned is warranted.
Here's the thing, though: I have no idea what the Pirates should do about this. I think Keith Law's take, that Alvarez was rushed through the minors, that the Pirates mishandled him, and that the only way to fix his problems now is to send him down to Triple-A to fix what ails him, is interesting. I also think that the Pirates would've been hard-pressed to keep Alvarez in Triple-A a day longer than they did in 2010. Through 66 games and 278 plate appearances, he'd hit 16 homers and he had a .277/.363/.533 line and his strikeouts weren't substantially different than they'd been in 2009. He seemed pretty fine with the Pirates, too. He was streaky, but he managed to adjust and finish strongly after a terrible stretch in August. That seemed like a good sign, even considering the strikeouts.
Obviously, it wasn't since Alvarez was such a disaster last year. The terrifying thing of it all is that his strikeout rate actually decreased a bit (30.8% to 30.5%) last year; he just got crossed up and confused way more often, which lead to less solid contact, which lead to an absolute void of power. The same thing was basically true when he went back down to Triple-A; he only hit 5 homers in 148 PAs with a .432 slugging percentage.
So how do you fix a power hitter that's lost all of his power? Some people wanted to Alvarez to go to winter ball and as I said at the time, I thought you could make an argument both for him going south for the winter and working on his swing and for him taking a mental break. He clearly did some work this winter with his swing, because he came to camp with a more pronounced toe-tap and early in the spring there was some talk about getting him comfortable with his new swing. Early on, it looked like it was working. He hit a couple of opposite field home runs (one after working a 1-2 count full!) and seemed to be generally improved over last year's mess. Since then, he's been much more hit or miss and he's got 15 strikeouts in 34 PAs and only two hits besides those two home runs. He's occasionally had better at-bats, but there's plenty of reason for concern here.
That leaves us with the Pirates' decision. What do you do with this guy? The club has decided to more or less unconditionally support him. He's the starting third baseman. It's true that he's working on a new swing, that the potential he brings to the lineup every day is greater than what Matt Hague and Josh Harrison bring, that spring training stats alone aren't much to get worked up about. It's true that the presence of Casey McGehee ensures that he won't have to play against the toughest lefties early in the year while he works on getting ironed out. It's true that for spring training the club has probably set benchmarks for Pedro that have little to do with the in-game results that we all see. It's true that the strong support from the front office might be good for him.
None of that makes me feel much better, though. If the Pirates are breaking camp with Pedro Alvarez as their starting third baseman, they're more or less committing to him starting at third base against right-handed pitching through the season's first 60-80 games. They absolutely cannot break camp with him on the roster, then bench him or demote him after an ugly 20 game stretch. It would be pointless and counterproductive to yank his chain like that. That means that when the Pirates start out 7-13 against their tough schedule and the casual fan with impossibly high expectations gets frustrated, it's going to be Alvarez that those frustrations get taken out on, assuming that his struggles continue.
Of course, by the same token, if the Pirates send Alvarez to start the year in Triple-A, they can't call him up for probably half of the season, no matter what the results are, because the ostensible reason he'd be sent down is to prove that he's at least where he was in 2010 and preferrably ahead of that benchmark. You can't prove that in 20 or 40 games. Maybe the Pirates think he's closer than that and would prefer not to have him in Triple-A for half of the season. The point is that I don't know what the right course of action is here and I don't know how many people really do. Maybe Alvarez just needs more time with his new swing and the best way to get it is in Pittsburgh. Maybe he needs a bigger overhaul of his swing and his whole approach and the best way to get it is in Indianapolis. We're only going to know by seeing how things play out in 2012.
One thing that I'm sure of is that how Alvarez hits is as important to the Pirates immediate and longer-term future as everyone else says he is. They need a 30-40 homer bat in the middle of the lineup, a real power threat. Alvarez is the best internal option for that. I don't know what the right approach is, but I hope that the one the Pirates are taking with him is it.