Besides the thrilling battles for fifth starter, seventh reliever, and the last two utility spots (I'm rolling my eyes here), much of the focus in Spring Traing 2010 is going to focus on three players who almost certainly won't open this season with the Pirates. I am, of course, talking about Pedro Alvarez, Brad Lincoln, and Jose Tabata. For this decision, we're going to look both at the decision to start these guys at Triple-A (which should already be made) and the longer-term decision of how to handle them during the season.
We all know the deal with Pedro Alvarez. After the long layover that his contract negotiations induced between 2008 and 2009, he flashed some power but mostly got off to a slow start in Lynchburg, then destroyed the Eastern League over the second half of the season and restored his top-prospect status. He's spent a good chunk of the off-season out in Arizona working on his conditioning, and there's a fairly good chance that he's ready to hit Major League pitching right now.
He won't, though, because it just doesn't make sense to burn a year of team control in 2010. I know a lot of people like to characterize that decision as "cheap," but it's really just good baseball sense. Why give up control of Alvarez for all of 2016 for an extra month or two in 2010? It's not an even exchange. Alvarez only has 258 plate appearances above Single-A right now, let him get his legs under him in Spring Training and Triple-A and bring him up in May or June, when we both know he's ready and don't have to give up a year of the future.
Lincoln and Tabata are a little more complicated. There seems to me to be a growing sentiment among some fans that they're both ready for the big leagues now and that the team is being "cheap" (there's that word again!) by keeping them in the minors. The problem with that logic is that both Lincoln and Tabata have things to prove left in the minors and I don't really think that either one of them is ready for the Majors right out of the gun in 2010.
Lincoln is the closer of the two, but after he was promoted to Triple-A Indy last year his strikeouts dropped, his home rate doubled. Lefties hit him particularly hard in the International League. I'm not necessarily concerned about him not making it to Pittsburgh; his line with Indianapolis was very similar to the line he put up with Hickory and Lynchburg in 2008 and he widely improved on all of his peripherals after he was promoted to Altoona in 2009. I think he could do the same thing in his second go-round with Indy this year. If he does that, he'll be more than ready for a shot in Pittsburgh and the Pirates will be ready for him by then. That doesn't make him ready in April, though.
Tabata's a different story. Giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming he's 21, he really needs to actually sit at a level and hit for a full season. He's shown flashes of talent all over the place; a little in Altoona in 2008, some in Indianapolis in 2009, and a lot in the AFL after the '09 season, but the power still hasn't blossomed and injuries have caused him to be wildly consistent. I don't see any reason at all to rush this guy to the Majors at this point. We have other guys we can work out in that corner spot to evaluate and he really needs to have a good, healthy year in the minors. Even if he tears the cover off the ball early in the season at Indy, I think you could argue that he would benefit from staying there until September.
Before Andrew McCutchen's arrival last year, it had been a long time since the Pirates had a good prospect make a Major League debut. Now, we actually have some to look forward to and it's understandable that people are tired of waiting. Still, that's no reason to actually rush these guys. Alvarez, Lincoln, and Tabata can all benefit from varying amounts of Triple-A time this year and with the team unlikely to contend in 2010, there's just no reason not to give it to them.