OK, going into the season third base was Pedro Alvarez's spot for as long as the Bucs could afford him, right? Well, maybe, but the journey has taken a couple of unexpected twists and turns.
Alvarez joined the youth core that the Bucs called up last year as they began their transition after an almost complete housesweeping by the FO. After posting a .256/16/64 line in 2010 with a 113 OPS+ and 1.6 WAR, fueled by a late season surge, El Toro was poised to join McCutch, Jose Tabata and Neil Walker as the heart of the Buccos going forward.
Oh, there were still a couple of lingering questions. Would his glove play? Would his conditioning improve a couple of ticks? Were his stats driven by beating up September call-up pitching? None looked like they would be answered in the negative or present any major bumps in the road.
He did come to camp looking bigger, but that become a tempest in a teapot sidebar. Pedro's weight was about the same as last season, despite reports that he had porked up. The truth was that he had actually done some off season work and packed on some muscle, and that couldn't be a bad thing for a clean up hitter. His glove looked adequate, and there was no question that he had the arm to play the hot corner, although the smart money was on him eventually moving across the diamond.
But the questions about his swing did continue. He hit .250 in the spring, and his 27 K's in 68 ABs showed there were still some serious holes to address. The season was even worse. Alvarez had some nagging injuries to work through, but they didn't explain the .208/2/10 line. Strikeouts continued at a 30% rate. Finally, in May, he was placed on the DL with a quad injury, and that dragged on when he aggravated it again in June.
Finally, in early July, he was ready to return. Guess what? The Bucs didn't want him. In a bombshell of a move, the offensively challenged Pirates sent their potentially biggest bat back to Indy, even though he had hit .294 with an .821 OPS in his week of rehab work there.
“Pedro remains a big part of our future, but we believe making this move is the best way to get him back on track offensively and defensively so that he can help us win games at the Major League level,” said General Manager Neal Huntington in the team release.
Well, OK, sending a message and getting El Toro some reps in one fell swoop isn't necessarily a bad thing. And so far, it's worked. Reports say that he's playing third pretty well, and his line to date is .339/2/10 in 56 ABs.
The Pirate concern, despite those numbers, is that Pedro's gone pull happy, and that's something they want to put to bed before he returns to Pittsburgh. And that's a legitimate concern; look what it's done to Garrett Jones.
But here's the conundrum. How much can Indy at-bats help him to overcome that flaw? His strike out rate is 25%, a bit under his average, and his walk rate is 16%, way over his average. What incentive is there to keep him at Indy, where the AAA pitchers work around him? His swing works fine in the minors, so how much tweaking can you expect during his stay?
Add in that Pittsburgh is currently filling in his position with Brandon Wood and Chase d'Arnaud, who are both hitting .215, barely better than Alvarez's weak 2011 line (although the position is ripe for Steve Pearce to get some time at the hot corner now that he's back.)
Hey, we applaud the Bucs for looking at the long term and sending Pedro back to the bushes in an effort to hone his game into MLB quality both mentally and physically. But the challenge to improve just isn't there. There are two options that we see.
The first is to deal for a third baseman and begin Alvarez's transition to first at Indy; it's not like Lyle Overbay is exactly Albert Pujols Jr. The Bucs haven't really shown much inclination toward that direction, and with good cause. There's no big bopper to play the hot corner in the organization, the market has very slim pickings, and first base is deeper in the system than third, so Pedro hasn't taken so much as a practice ball at first that we're aware of.
The other is to bring him back and mold him in the MLB crucible where the pitchers aren't afraid to feed him sliders and curves away with the occasional heater on the hands. We don't think that's rushing him back, but rather just another step in his learning process.
With Steve Pearce again on the 25 man roster, they could ease Pedro in slowly as a platoon guy if they want. But whether he's manning third every day or just against righties, the Bucs have a huge hole in the middle of their order that only Pedro has the potential to fill from within.
It's time to bring Pedro Alvarez back for both this season's run and for the future of the team.