Friday, January 8, 2010


Hey, Washington Heights in Manhattan is noted for many things, some cool and some that aren't all that savory. But it was home to one of baseball's hallowed fields, the Polo Grounds, where Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, and Tom Seaver once strutted their stuff.

The Heights was also the nest where a couple of pretty fair major league careers were hatched; those of Manny Ramirez and Rod Carew. The Pirates are hoping to add a third name to Washington Heights' MLB honor roll, Pedro Alvarez.

Alvarez, who will be 23 in February, was a high school phenom. In his senior year of 2005, he set records for his team, Horace Mann, an independent prep school, in home runs, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, and RBIs. Alvarez was named the Louisville Slugger and Gatorade New York Athlete of the Year and was on LS's All-America squad.

He also took his summer club team, the Bayside Yankees, to a national title in 2005. The Red Sox drafted him in the fourteenth round after that season, as he was ranked as the 97th best pro prospect in the country by BA. The Sox offered him a bonus said to be $775K, but Alvarez opted to honor his commitment to Vanderbilt. Good move. It's not often the Pirates outbid the boys from Boston for a player.

He got off to a scorching start at Vandy and was picked as BA's National Freshman of the Year in 2006. Alvarez was then selected to the USA National team, leading the team in batting average. Baseball America ranked him as the 2nd best pro prospect on the squad. Sports Illustrated ranked him as the best pro prospect on the team and said that he was the "early favorite to be drafted first in 2008."

Before the 2007 campaign began Alvarez was named to the watchlist for the SEC and national player of the year awards and a pre-season All-America. Alvarez lived up to the hype, hitting .397 with 17 home runs, 65 RBI, 72 runs, an on-base percentage of .467, and a slugging percentage of .706 for the 51-11 Commodores.

Vanderbilt won its first ever SEC regular-season championship that year. During the SEC Tournament, Alvarez was named Tournament MVP. He was invited back to Team USA and led the team in homers, RBIs, batting average, hits, and slugging percentage.

He was first team All-America for three publications, and second-team on another pair before the 2008 season. Hey, even Dave Littlefield knew this kid could play, although we shudder to think who the Bucs would have picked if the new suits hadn't come aboard.

Alvarez kept raking as a junior, but he suffered a broken hamate bone, which sapped a lot of his power that season and took him out of the lineup for several weeks.

Maybe because of that (or the dreaded signability issue), Tampa Bay led off the 2008 draft by picking high school shortstop Tim Beckham, and the new Pirate front office earned huge cred among the long-suffering fans by taking Alvarez next.

Ah, but no one anticipated the upcoming drama. Scott Boras dragged the negotiations out to the midnight hour, when the Pirates announced they signed Alvarez to a $6M contract. After a few days of silence, Boras claimed that the ink dried two minutes late. The deal was no deal according to his calculations.

The whole affair was dumped in the league office's lap and went in front of a judge. But again, at the last minute, Alvarez and Boras relented and signed a new contract worth $6.35M. Why the brinkmanship?

As near as GW can figure, it was because Buster Posey got a $6.2M bonus in 2008, the highest ever before Steven Strasburg and Dustin Ackley bettered that number in 2009. So not only did Boras get the richest bonus up to that time, but he set the bar higher for the upcoming rooks. Devil or angel, he can sure work the system.

Of course, others rightly point out that the union filed the grievance, not the agent, and it was to uphold the contract, as the league had always allowed a little wiggle room for late signings and they didn't want to upset the apple cart. Apparently, both sides were leery of the ramifications of a binding decision, so they settled before a verdict was rendered. Machiavelli could be a GM today.

Anyway, 2008 was a lost year professionally for Alvarez, who bore the brunt of Boras' machinations. The Bucs front office didn't help by darkly muttering about his uncanny resemblance to the Sta-Puf Marshmallow Man. In fact, Alvarez didn't stay in shape because of a bout of tendinitis in his knees; he's in much better condition now that his knees have calmed down and he's on a structured program.

The draft flap was much ado about nothing. By all accounts, Pedro is a good kid, hard worker, and an academic whiz. Still, he bore the onus of being an ornery Boras client in the short term while losing what should have been his rookie season.

But everyone, from Neal Huntington to Scott Boras to Joe Fan knew that his public persona would eventually be linked to his performance. And hey, he's done a pretty good job of earning a little love lately.

After tearing it up in training camp, Alvarez was assigned to High A Lynchburg. He was productive, with 14 homers and 55 RBI in 243 at-bats, although he was hitting just .247. No problem; he was moved on to Altoona.

Alvarez hit .333/.419/.590 for the Curve with an OPS of 1.009, whacking 13 homers and driving home 40 in 222 at-bats. His overall maiden line was .288/.378/.535 with a .913 OPS, 32 doubles, 129 K's and 71 walks in 465 at-bats. And while he didn't exactly play third like Andy LaRoche, he wasn't Richie Hebner, either.

His arm is strong enough. He's a big guy (6'-2", 210-15 pounds), and his range isn't great. But Alvarez has an adequate mitt at the hot corner for now. Whether or not he moves to first, we think, will depend on how Andy LaRoche, Garrett Jones, and Jeff Clement play out by the time Pedro gets his call, likely this summer.

He's ticketed to start the year at Indy, and if all goes according to plan, it'll be Pedro time at PNC come June.


MarkInDallas said...

I'll be watching his K rate in AAA this year. He needs to get that down around 20% or there are going to be a lot of very disappointed people in Pittsburgh in 2010.

If he is brought up before lowering his K rate substantially, I see him having a similar rookie campaign to Jeff Clements' with the Mariners, which means he won't be a difference maker right away.

WilliamJPellas said...

I agree 100%. I would much rather see Pedro come up after an overwhelming 2/3rds or 3/4ths of a Triple-A campaign than watch him be reduced to mere mortal status if he is promoted in June (which is to say, too early).

Although he is certainly an exceptional prospect who gets additional consideration for his major college experience---which most observers consider to be roughly equivalent to Double-A---Triple-A is another matter. While you don't see as many elite prospects at that level (since many skip it altogether and go right from Double-A to the bigs) what you DO see is a lot of guys who are several years older than you. Many of those, in turn, have actual big league playing experience, and the rest are longtime "organizational soldiers" who may have topped out as Quad-A players but who can still make you look bad just by virtue of their long experience. Also, a lot of guys at Triple-A are, if anything, even MORE desperate to vault over you and get back to the majors, as they are often faded former top picks (such as Clement) or guys trying to make it back from injury, etc..

All that to say, I hope Pedro gets most of 2010 at the Triple-A level. Which in turn means we'll probably hold onto Adam LaRoche at least until next offseason, despite recent speculation elsewhere in the Pirate blogosphere that he might be traded.

WilliamJPellas said...

And of course, obviously you still see a lot of very good and some "elite" prospects in Triple-A (such as our boy Andrew McCutchen); just not quite as many as were at Double-A, since some have already gone on to the bigs.

My point being that Triple-A is still the highest level of organized professional baseball in the universe not named Major League Baseball or, arguably, the Japanese Professional Baseball League. And most students of the game would say that the JPBL is closer to American Triple-A than it is to the bigs.

Anyway, now I'm rambling. The point is that I'd rather see Pedro come up as a polished prospect who can hit the ground running and stay that way, than watch him lose time and productivity because he struggles due to a premature promotion.

Ron Ieraci said...

Very good points, gents. I'm concerned about the preseason hype to push Pedro, Jose, Brad, etc. to the big club a few weeks into the season as if it's a given.

One thing I will say about the suits, though, is although they fast track guys through the minors, they don't seem to rush them into the show. Given that history, I'd suspect the young guns will have to complete their punch list before being brought up, ala Andrew McCutchen.