By John Perrotto
If there is one bright spot as the Pirates careen toward their 18th consecutive losing season, it is that they have three talented rookies in the everyday lineup in second baseman Neil Walker, third baseman Pedro Alvarez and left fielder Jose Tabata.
That trio will give the Pirates something to build around, along with second-year center fielder Andrew McCutchen, when they begin to dig out from the rubble of this season. The Pirates are on pace for 107 losses, which would be most for franchise since the 1952 team lost 112.
While few baseball people outside of the Pirates’ front office believe winning baseball is returning to Pittsburgh in the near future, most scouts feel Walker, Alvarez and Tabata have a chance to be very good players.
One scout from another National League Central team broke down the three rookies earlier this week.
Walker has been a surprise this season as he seemed to have fallen out of favor with the Pirates after spending the previous two seasons at Class AAA Indianapolis. However, the former catcher and third baseman got his lone-awaited opportunity in late May when the Pirates benched struggling and out of shape second baseman Aki Iwamura.
Walker has hit .303 with five home runs and 30 RBIs in 55 games while adjusting to a position he had never played until this year in spring training.
“It’s really all started to come together for him,” the scout said. “He had gotten some much hype from the time he had been the Pirates’ first-round draft pick (in 2004 from Pine-Richland High School) that people lost sight of the fact he is still just 24 years old. It takes time for kids from the North to develop, especially someone like Walker who also split his time playing football in high school.
“He’s going to be a solid major-league player. He might not be an All-Star but I really think he’ll hit .280 with 15-20 homers and play a pretty good second base. Someone like that can have a long career. He adds some intangibles, too. He plays the game hard and plays it the right way.”
Alvarez is the most-hyped of the rookies as he was the Pirates’ first-round pick and the second overall selection in the 2008 draft then signed a club-record $6.335 million contract. He is hitting .227 with eight homers and 22 RBIs in 42 games.
“Guys who are susceptible to striking out usually take a while to adjust at the big-league level and that’s the case with him,” the scout said. “If anything, he’s being too patient and letting some hittable pitches go by, especially early in the count.
” Still, he’s doing OK. You can see he has legitimate big-league power. He’s not going to .300 like Albert Pujols. He’s going to be a .250-.260 hitter and hit 30-35 homers a year, maybe 40 in a big year. That’ll make him a lot of money.
Tabata has hit .296 with two homers, 16 RBIs and 10 stolen bases in 47 games.
“This kid has been a revelation for me,” the scout said. “I really had questions whether he would hit enough to be more than a fourth outfielder in the big leagues and time might still prove me right. But he keeps making me eat my words. He’s played really well. He doesn’t look scared and he adds some life to a dead team. I’d still like to see more power but maybe he’s going to end up being a speed guy, which is OK if he keeps getting base and making things happen.”
—John Perrotto is editor-in-chief of BaseballProspectus.com and baseball columnist for the Beaver County Times—