30 Questions: Pittsburgh Pirates
Does Pedro Alvarez still have the potential to be a fantasy star?
As Andy Dufresne tells Red in "The Shawshank Redemption," "Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies."
If there's one thing the Pittsburgh Pirates organization needs, it's a sense of hope. Sure, their 72 wins last season were the most since 2004 (and a 15-win jump over 2010's total), and despite the team's fourth-place finish in the National League Central, they were actually leading the division in mid-July. Plus, the Pirates' farm system was recently ranked by Keith Law as the eighth strongest in baseball, indicating better days may be ahead. So, if anything, things seem to be heading in the right direction. Still, the Pirates haven't cracked the .500 mark in 19 consecutive seasons, and that's a dark cloud that has yet to dissipate.
Many facets of the organization have had bleak outlooks for years now, and that's certainly true from an offensive standpoint, as the Pirates have ranked in the bottom three in both home runs and runs scored in the NL in each of the past three seasons. Aside from rising star Andrew McCutchen, who reportedly just agreed to a six-year, $51.5 million contract extension, there isn't much firepower in Pittsburgh's lineup. Neil Walker is coming off a strong 2011 campaign, Garrett Jones has 20-homer pop and Jose Tabata has long-term potential, but what the Pirates lack is a middle-of-the-order, run-producing bat a role that Pedro Alvarez was supposed to fill.
Ranked by Baseball America as the eighth-best prospect in baseball in 2010 with a power grade of 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale, Alvarez made his Pirates debut that season and showed off his power potential, slamming 16 home runs and driving in 64 runs in 347 at-bats. That was supposed to be Alvarez's first step in establishing himself as a dangerous presence in the middle of the Pirates' lineup, with bigger and better things expected as a follow-up in 2011. That's not how things turned out, unfortunately.
Alvarez got off to a slow start last season, hitting just .200/.258/.278 in 90 April at-bats, and things didn't get much better after that. A quad injury sent him to the disabled list in May, and the Pirates optioned him to Triple-A when he was activated on July 9. He was recalled on July 25 but was sent down again roughly three weeks later after managing just 12 hits in 69 at-bats (.174 average). Another brief call-up once rosters expanded in September didn't yield any better results (.171/.306/.317 in 41 at-bats). Altogether, Alvarez finished the 2011 season with a .191 average with four dingers and 19 RBIs in 235 at-bats. Not exactly the breakout campaign many fantasy owners were anticipating.
So what exactly went wrong? First off, Alvarez's .256 batting average with the Pirates in 2010 was driven by a .342 batting average on balls in play. He didn't get the same bounces last year, as evidenced by his .272 BABIP. Sure, we could at least partly blame Alvarez's struggles last year on bad luck, but that wasn't the underlying issue. In fact, the high BABIP in 2010 just masked the issue, which is Alvarez's inability to make consistent contact. Each of the past two seasons the slugger's contact rate has registered at just 66 percent. That's "hacker" territory, folks. What's also discouraging is that Alvarez didn't make any more contact after he was demoted to the minors last season, as his contact rate stayed at 66 percent in 125 Triple-A at-bats.
If you're looking for a comparable, Adam Dunn, who's coming off an historically bad season with the Chicago White Sox, holds an identical 66 percent contact rate in 5,390 career at-bats. This isn't damning, by any means, as, prior to last season, Dunn was a fine fantasy option thanks to his consistent high-end power production. However, Dunn is also a career .243 hitter and has never hit better than .267 in his big league career, and looking at him might give us some realistic expectations for Alvarez in terms of batting average. Prior to his call-up in 2010, Alvarez posted a 72 percent contact rate over three minor league levels in 2009 and 2010. That provides a small amount of optimism, I suppose, but not enough to think he'll ever be an asset in the batting average category.
If we break things down further, part of Alvarez's problem is his inability to hit off-speed pitches. As colleague Tristan H. Cockcroft noted in his analysis of the Arizona Diamondbacks' Paul Goldschmidt, Alvarez sports a .296/.386/.470 slash line against fastballs in his career and a .170/.225/.330 line against off-speed offerings. Alvarez could certainly improve in this area as he matures and gets more acclimated to big league pitching, but pitchers will continue to exploit this weakness until he gives them reason not to.
By the looks of it, all that's really left here worth getting excited about from a fantasy standpoint is the power potential, which is the primary reason Alvarez was such a highly-regarded prospect in the first place. Despite his swing-and-miss tendencies, he blasted 27 homers between High Class A and Double-A in 2009 and 29 dingers between Triple-A and the majors in 2010 with average isolated power marks of .248 and .231, respectively. So, despite last year's struggles, we know he has the pop to help fantasy owners. That's assuming, of course, he hits enough to stick in the majors, which is something he was unable to do in 2011.
We're told that spring training stats don't matter, and that's mostly true, but Alvarez bears watching this spring. For one, a strong spring would, at the very least, provide us with some optimism that he's put last year's disastrous performance behind him. But more importantly, an impressive showing in March will help solidify his spot on the Pirates' roster as the everyday third baseman. Remember, the Pirates acquired fellow third baseman Casey McGehee from the Milwaukee Brewers during the offseason. Like Alvarez, McGehee's production fell off the table in 2011. However, the former Brewer hit .285-23-104 as recently as 2010, so it's conceivable that he could work himself into a platoon at the hot corner, or possibly steal the job outright if Alvarez has an awful spring.
While I've spewed plenty of negativity regarding Alvarez's fantasy prospects, it's always important to remember that the skills we've seen from the young slugger so far, no matter how discouraging, aren't necessarily set in stone. He's only 25 years old and has received just 582 at-bats thus far in his brief major league career, so there's still plenty of time for him to mature as a hitter and make adjustments as he spends more time at the big league level.
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Because of the low expectations many have for Alvarez this season, there's no reason you can't take the wait-and-see approach in standard 10-team ESPN formats. As for deeper mixed leagues and keeper formats, you could do worse than take a shot on Alvarez as a late-round flier.
To answer the question at hand, which is whether Alvarez will ever be a "fantasy star," I think the answer is no. At this point, he just doesn't bring enough to the table aside from the power potential. That doesn't mean he no longer offers intriguing upside or will never be an asset to fantasy owners, however. After all, while the Adam Dunns (the pre-2011 version) and Carlos Penas of the world aren't "fantasy stars," so to speak, they still offer plenty of fantasy value.
Alvarez could very well turn into something more than that, or wind up being one of many first-round busts. However, settling in as a low-average, good-power type is probably the most likely scenario for the Pirates third baseman. We'll obviously have to wait and see how he performs over the next couple of seasons to know for sure, though.
If there's one thing we do know, it's that the Pirates and fantasy owners alike are holding out hope that Alvarez will eventually fully realize the potential that made him the No. 2 overall pick in 2008 and solidify the middle of Pittsburgh's batting order. And hope is a good thing.
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