The objective of the Pittsburgh Pirates has undergone change after the Dave Littlefield era. No longer was it merely acceptable to have uniformed bodies in all the dugouts from PNC Park on down to rookie ball. No more fodder for late-night comics intent on riffing on endless baseball ineptitude in the former City of Champions.
New management in the form of new team president Frank Coonelly and new general manager Neal Huntington set about sweeping out the stench of failure. The new direction would give the Pirates roster options and flexibility.
The journey hasn't been easy or too popular at times. Let's face it: The dwindling fanbase was simply fed up with the endless promises. The turnaround is far from complete. However, it now looks like the Pirates have players pushing each other for jobs. There are NO sacred cows any longer.
Ever since Pedro Alvarez emerged from Vanderbilt to be the Pittsburgh Pirates' No. 1 draft pick in 2008, expectations have been sky-high—arguably a little too unfairly, perhaps. He did himself no favors in that department by not signing a contract until the point of no return. Pirate fans were almost immediately regaled by local sports talkers who painted Alvarez's skills in Bunyanesque terms following the draft.
Alvarez reported to his first camp, and the grandiose accounts of his prowess followed. One frequent comparison was to Willie Stargell. It seems that when Pedro stepped into the cage to take BP, the ball jumped off the bat. Just like when Stargell was a kid, each crack of lumber against a leather-bound spheroid caused more players to drop what they were doing to watch. "Just wait 'til Pedro gets here!" now became the rallying cry.
When the team broke camp, Pedro found himself playing for the Lynchburg Hillcats in the Carolina League. His numbers, overall, weren't worthy of the $6.355 million he'd agreed to play for. In 66 games, Pedro hit a mere .247. However, his power totals raised some eyebrows. He'd slugged 14 homers and driven in 55 runs. What was alarming were the 70 strikeouts that he also racked up.
Because of the power potential, Alvarez was reassigned to Double-A Altoona in the Eastern League. He fared much better, hitting .333 in 60 games. He even reduced the whiffs to 59, while belting 13 round-trippers and chasing home 40 RBI. Better grade of pitching, better numbers and Pedro opened just his second professional baseball season in Triple-A Indianapolis.
After 66 games with the Indians, Alvarez was hitting .277, with 13 homers and 53 runs driven across. The strikeouts were back up to 68, and that should've been a red flag.
Meanwhile, back at PNC, Andy LaRoche had fallen out of favor with former skipper John Russell. "The Savior of the Franchise" was summoned to Pittsburgh, despite experiencing nagging difficulty with left-handed pitching throughout his meteoric rise through the farm system. Russell threw the kid to the lions straightaway, allowing LaRoche to rot on the bench.
Alvarez's glaring inconsistencies were magnified by the quality of arms Pedro was facing—the very best pitchers in baseball. Pedro, predictably, struggled in no uncertain terms. He chased bad balls. He was vulnerable to the breaking ball away. He took too many hittable pitches. He lacked a firm grasp of the strike zone and what to expect or when.
He seemingly got ironed out by mid-September, racking up "National League Player of the Week" honors on Sept. 27 and copping "National League Rookie of the Month" on Sept. 30. Overall, he disappointed with a .256 average, 16 homers, 64 RBI and 119 strikeouts in 95 contests.
This season, Pedro has gone right back to square one—he has struggled. He played in 36 games before getting placed on the disabled list in late May. During that span, he hit a mere .208 with two HRs, 10 RBI and 42 Ks. Manager Clint Hurdle has not been afraid of moving Pedro around in the order in hopes of getting him untracked. Nor has he been afraid to sit the young man down against certain pitchers, unlike John Russell.
Eligibility for arbitration is looming on the horizon. According to the Major League Baseball Players Association, here's how eligibility is calculated:
"A player with three or more years of service, but less than six years, may file for salary arbitration. In addition, a player can be classified as a 'Super Two' and be eligible for arbitration with less than three years of service. A player with at least two but less than three years of Major League service shall be eligible for salary arbitration if he has accumulated at least 86 days of service during the immediately preceding season and he ranks in the top 17 percent in total service in the class of Players who have at least two but less than three years of Major League service, however accumulated, but with at least 86 days of service accumulated during the immediately preceding season."
With Alvarez sidelined, Steve Pearce (a converted first baseman) and newcomer Brandon Wood began splitting duties at third. Pearce was making the most of his opportunities in recent games before he too suffered an injury. He was hitting .291 with one homer and 10 RBI in 28 games. Enter Josh Harrison, who'd been dismantling Triple-A pitching for the Indianapolis Indians at a .321 clip.
Alvarez is eligible to return to the club on June 4th. He's going to need to make the most of this opportunity. The Pirates suddenly have options. Will he be traded if his slumping continues? Not likely this year, but one can never completely rule it out.