Rabu, 14 September 2011

Alvarez Needs to Fulfill Promise

September 14, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 13: Pedro Alvarez(notes) #24 of the Pittsburgh Pirates gets a hit in the ninth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals during the game on September 13, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Cardinals defeated the Pirates 6-4. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Sometime soon, maybe with Wednesday's matinee at PNC Park, the Pirates will lose their 82nd game, clinch their 19th consecutive losing season and extend a streak that was such a blissful afterthought most of the summer.

It's a shame. Baseball had just begun to be fun again around here when the collapse of the rotation, the continued whiffs at the plate and Jerry Meals' safe call conspired to blow that balloon right out of the sky.

Still, none of that's as big a shame as what's become of Pedro Alvarez.

Remember him?

He's the $6 million bonus baby who was the consensus top prospect in the 2008 draft, the franchise's most exciting power-hitting prospect in a decade. In his first spring training, he was compared aesthetically to a young Willie Stargell by no less an authority than Manny Sanguillen. And once Alvarez rocketed through the minors — 40 home runs in 192 games — those expectations found another notch.

Easy to forget now, isn't it?

Think back to Monday night: It might have been lost in that 6-5 comeback victory, but in the heat of the big eighth-inning rally, manager Clint Hurdle pinch-hit for Alvarez with 5-foot-8, little-engine-that-could Josh Harrison. Alvarez stayed expressionless as he walked down the steps to the dugout, slid the bat back into its hole and took a seat.

I've covered Alvarez since his draft year, and I never imagined I'd see such a scene.

But there he sat, along with his .189 average, three home runs, 15 RBIs, 71 strikeouts and 17 walks in 206 at-bats. He couldn`t hit in his most recent minor-league stint, and he`s 2 for 13 since coming back, though he did hammer a single up the middle as a pinch-hitter in the 6-4 loss Tuesday night.

Talk to the kid, and you wouldn't know anything's amiss.

I asked Alvarez after batting practice yesterday what he might take from this season: "The season's not over. I have to keep working. It's about hard work and optimism."

He hasn't gotten down?


Not at all?

"It can get to you, obviously. It's not all peachy when things aren't going well. But it's how you bounce back, how you tackle it; that's how you build character. If you don't do that, you just succumb to it. I'm not about that. I'm going to keep grinding."

Does he still believe he can be the elite player so many expected?

"Oh, yeah, absolutely. I have every bit of confidence in the world that I can do that. I know I can. I showed glimpses of it last year.

"Right now, pitchers have me figured out a little more than I have them. It's just a matter of me figuring it out. Once that happens ... let's just say I'm confident. This is the start to a long career."

Maybe that was a gruff exterior, and maybe it wasn't.

Alvarez has more than his share of skeptics, including inside the baseball world. He is criticized for his conditioning and, despite a visibly intense work ethic, for his commitment.

Where Alvarez's weight is concerned, I couldn't care less. Ask Prince Fielder how many flights of steps he runs each day.

The commitment facet, I think, is being put to the test right now.

The Pirates have been urging Alvarez to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic this offseason, and though that's always voluntary, they're being highly reasonable in doing so. Alvarez not only has struggled but also missed two months to a thigh injury. He could use the at-bats, to say the least.

Though management has been telling people that Alvarez is amenable to a Dominican assignment, it sure didn't sound like that in our conversation Tuesday.

"You know, that's something we're still discussing, the organization and myself," Alvarez said. "We haven't really talked yet. So, we'll see how that goes."

He needs to go. There shouldn't even be a discussion.

And the Pirates, in general, need to get better at getting Alvarez's best out of him. This reflects badly on Clint Hurdle, a former hitting coach, and even worse on Gregg Ritchie, the current hitting coach who hasn't gotten the best out of anyone this year. There isn't another power-hitter coming in the Pirates' system, and it's imperative to the current core in Pittsburgh that Alvarez becomes that guy.

It's Pedro or bust, but that choice is still there to be made.

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