By John Perrotto
It is too early to call Pedro Alvarez bust, though he seems headed on that track at the moment.
The big third baseman was activated from the disabled list last Saturday by the Pirates after being out since May 20 with a strained quadriceps. However, in a surprising move, at least to Alvarez according to a club source, the Pirates told the left-handed hitter to stay in Indianapolis, optioning him to their Class AAA farm club where he had been on a rehab assignment.
The move is clearly a step backward for Alvarez, though his struggles hasn’t hurt the Pirates yet. They are 47-43 and in third place in the National League Central, only one game behind co-leaders Milwaukee and St. Louis and even with the Brewers and Cardinals in the loss column.
The Pirates, though, need Alvarez to become the power hitter they lack in their lineup if they are to be successful for the long haul.
They broke club precedent three years ago by giving Alvarez a major-league contract worth $6,335,000 after selecting with the second overall pick in the 2008 major-league draft.
They paid Alvarez that money with the idea that he would be their cleanup hitter for at least six seasons before he could become eligible for free agency. And with all due respect, the Pirates can’t be a consistent contender over the next few years with a combination of Chase d’Arnaud, Josh Harrison and Brandon Wood playing the hot corner.
Alvarez finds himself back in the minor leagues after hitting just .208 with two home runs and 10 RBIs in 36 games before being injured. It is a major disappointment after he batted .256 with 16 homers and 64 RBIs in 95 games as a rookie last season.
While the demotion could be interpreted as a wakeup call, general manager Neal Huntington said that is not the case.
“It would have been an aggressive move to put him back in the major leagues right away,” Huntington said. “Before he was injured, Pedro wasn’t where we needed him to be. Being out for an extended period of time, he needs to get his timing back and regroup.”
The Pirates want Alvarez to work with well-regarded Indianapolis hitting coach Jeff Branson on learning to use the whole field rather than being so pull conscious.
“The league has adjusted to Pedro and he needs to adjust back,” Huntington said. “When he drives the ball to left-center, he’s dangerous, but when his swing is too big, he’s an easy out.”
If Alvarez doesn’t adjust, he will go down as one of the biggest busts in Pirates’ history. Speaking of Pirates’ history, though, there was another power-hitting third baseman in their past whose situation was similar to that of Alvarez.
Jeff King was the first overall pick in the 1986 draft and, like Alvarez, expected to be a major part of a massive Pirates’ rebuilding effort.
Also like Alvarez, King needed to be sent back down to the minor leagues for more work after reaching the major leagues. Alvarez and King also had similar personalities, laid back to the point where it seemed like they had no interest in being a major-leaguer.
It took King quite a while to blossom into the player the Pirates hoped. He drove in 98 runs in 1993, seven years after being drafted, but didn’t really break through until 1996 when he had had 30 home runs and 111 RBIs in his last season with the Pirates. King then hit 28 homers and drove in 112 the next year with the Kansas City Royals before abruptly retiring two years later and buying a ranch in a remote section of Montana.
While it is hard to difficult to image Alvarez, who grew up in the Washington Heights section of New York, eventually walking away from the game and settling in Big Sky territory, the Pirates can only hope he doesn’t take as long as King to develop.
— John Perrotto has covered the Pirates and Major League Baseball for 24 years and is the national writer for Baseball Prospectus.