Take yourself back to the summer of 2008. What were you doing then? I know what I was up to and it can best be described as “transitional”.
In June 2008, the Pirates were also in a “transitional” period. It was the first full season under GM Neal Huntington. Unlike his well-coifed predecessor, the supremely incompetent Dave Littlefield, Pirate fans had reason to hope that the statistically-inclined Huntington could lead them out of the desert of sub-mediocrity.
That June, Huntington put his first major stamp on the team by drafting his first player — Pedro Alvarez. Alvarez was a tantalizing object for Pirate fans in the form of a young, slugging 3B. He had pedigree to bolster his draft position. In 2006, he was named Baseball America’s Freshman of the Year and to their First Team All-American list, thanks to an eye-popping season of .329 AVG/.456 OBP/.675 SLG with 22 HR’s in 64 games for Vanderbilt in the tough SEC. He followed that up with a 2007 sophomore season that was equally as good. His line of .386 AVG/.462 OBP/.684 SLG with 18 HR in 66 games garnered him Baseball America’s First Team All-American spot and a Golden Spikes Player of the Year finalist nomination (which he lost to teammate LHP David Price).
However, in February 2008, Alvarez broke his hamate bone and his season numbers suffered (.317 AVG/.415 OBP/.593 SLG, 9 HR in 40 games). This shouldn’t have prevented him going 1st overall in the draft, but the Rays did the Pirates a favor when they selected high school shortstop Tim Beckham, allowing Alvarez to go 2nd to the Pirates.
Pirate fans were giddy. It was easy (if incorrect) to extrapolate his 22 HR in 64 games and think that he could hit 50+ in a 162-game season. At worst, people were thinking he was good for 40 homers. Not a lot of people paid much mind to the troubling 20+% strikeout rates per plate appearance in college. All the talk of him having to move to 1B eventually, due to his size, was swept under the rug because for the first time since 1992 there was something strange brewing in the hearts of Pirate fans.
And like Andy Dufresne says in The Shawshank Redemption, “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
Except maybe interest in the Pirates from the general fanbase. But Alvarez energized that moribund fanbase. The on-field, major league product in Pittsburgh was still dreadful, but now there was hope in the minors in the form of a modern-day Willie Stargell that would lead the Pirates to glory.
Were there too many expectations placed on Pedro Alvarez? Maybe. Were the expectations unfair to begin with? Probably. He was turned into a savior for a beleaguered franchise and like all false idols he has failed to deliver.
Pedro debuted in the Majors after the Super 2 deadline safely passed in 2010. By metrics both traditional and advanced, that partial season was the peak of his career. The traditional stats show his highest batting average (.256 in 2010, career of .235) and on-base percentage (.326 in 2010, career of .307). The advanced stat, Runs Created Above Average (wRC+), shows that he posted a 114 — meaning he created 14% more runs than the average player. Not average 3B…player. For his career, Alvarez’s wRC+ is 104.
And that gets to the root of the issue. Alvarez, with only producing 4% more runs than average, is not that great of a player. To be a strong contributor, a player’s wRC+ should be at least 120, probably closer to 130. Many people see the towering home runs, especially his career high of 36 in 2013, and are mesmerized. But in reality, waiting on a Pedro homer is like waiting for Godot. The in-between stuff is interminable, because he doesn’t contribute to the offense other than the occasional dinger.
Alvarez’s career strikeout rate of 29.6% shows the level of pure unproductive outs that he has produced. His career walk rate of 9.2% isn’t in the Adam Dunn tier to offset all those strikeouts. It’s already been shown that his career average and on-base percentage are low. Additionally, Alvarez’s season high for doubles is 25 from 2012. That total was only good enough to be tied for 105th place in 2012. That’s just not a good enough return for a supposed power hitter.
Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of Alvarez’s game at the plate is his apparent inability to handle the cleanup spot. Surely on draft day, both fans and Pirate management anticipated Pedro Alvarez to be cemented in as the #4 hitter on this team, but whether it is the pressure or some other factor, Alvarez has been better lower in the lineup where the stress is less.
- Batting 4th (466 AB’s), Alvarez has a career line of .193 AVG/.277 OBP/.365 SLG (642 OPS, 80 wRC+, 20 HR)
- Batting 5th (546 AB’s), Alvarez has a career line of .273 AVG/.332 OBP/.480 SLG (812 OPS, 122 wRC+, 27 HR)
- Batting 6th (749 AB’s), Alvarez has a career line of .248 AVG/.315 OBP/.471 SLG (786 OPS, 116 wRC+, 43 HR)
In looking at these numbers, Alvarez has had the most success in the 5 spot, but due to lineup construction he’s been relegated to the 6 hole most in his career. By that I mean since Pedro is unable to bat cleanup, another left-handed hitter (Garrett Jones, Ike Davis, etc.) has typically occupied that spot. Clint Hurdle does not want two lefties, especially ones with sharp platoon splits like Alvarez and the erstwhile 1st basemen had, to be next to each other in the lineup, so Alvarez has been bumped down to the 6th spot.
His feebleness against left-handed pitching is pretty well-established at this point, but just to hammer home that Alvarez is not a complete offensive asset:
- vs. LHP — .196 AVG/.267 OBP/.321 SLG (588 OPS, 64 wRC+) with 36.6% K rate
- vs. RHP — .247 AVG/.320 OBP/.472 SLG (792 OPS, 118 wRC+) with 27.3% K rate
Even if Pedro never faced a lefty (virtually impossible in today’s game), he still wouldn’t exactly be burning down the barn with that stat line.
I haven’t even touched on his defense, mostly his throwing accuracy, while at 3B. I figure that I’ve flayed enough skin off his hide already; we all watched him last year and we all know why he’s going to 1B in 2015.
So these first 1000 words bring me to the crux of the article. Pedro Alvarez has two years of team control left — 2015 and 2016. After that he’s a free agent that is represented by Scott Boras, who strongly believes in taking the vast majority of his clients to free agency to test the market. There are no hometown discounts and very, very few pre-free agency deals that buy out free agent years like the Pirates have done with others.
For the 2015 season, Alvarez can expect to make between $5.25 and $5.75M through his 2nd year of arbitration. Because arbitration is primarily based on counting stats accrued, even a so-so 2015 will probably see Alvarez in line for a 2016 salary of around $8M. It’s hard to see the Pirates willing to spend that amount on a barely-above average 1B. Here are the scenarios I see with Alvarez in 2015:
- Alvarez hits 30+ HR and plays a competent 1B. This means the Pirates were probably in wild-card contention and his value has been restored somewhat. They will then look to trade him on the market after the season to get some return on his final year of control.
- Alvarez hits less than 20 HR, is a disaster at 1B, spends time on DL. At that point, I think the Pirates still feverishly try to trade him, even for pennies on the dollar, but the more realistic endgame is to non-tender him.
- Alvarez has a meandering season with 25 HR, some uninspiring defense at 1B. As with most things, the answer probably lies in the murky middle. This is the scenario I see happening the most, which will cause quite a decision on Federal Street. It’s possible that to move him, Alvarez may need to be packaged with a semi-decent prospect.
In each of these scenarios, I have the Pirates moving Alvarez in the 2015 offseason, because if they let him play out his time in 2016, they’ll risk losing him for nothing in free agency. To even get a supplemental 1st round draft pick, the Pirates would have to offer him a 1 year Qualifying Offer, which in 2016 will be probably at least $16.5M. It’s hard to see them be willing to take a chance that Alvarez will turn that down, just to attempt to gain a draft pick.
There are quite a few Pirates that will be getting expensive in 2016. Neil Walker and Mark Melancon will be in their final years of arbitration. Josh Harrison, Tony Watson, and Vance Worley will all be in their 2nd years, with Jordy Mercer and Jeff Locke going for the first time. In short, they’ll have other places that they need to allocate their dollars.
There’s one final factor to consider in the whole Pedro Alvarez saga and that is how Josh Bell performs in the minors this year. He’s most likely going to start at Altoona, but if he adjusts and tears up the Eastern League like he did the Florida State League in 2014, he should see time at Triple A Indianapolis this summer. If that’s the case, it could make the Pirates’ decision to part ways with Alvarez a little easier, knowing that there is a homegrown alternative ready for only $500,000.
Not every player develops exactly as expected. It is a shame that this particular player, one who had such promise and fanfare on that warm June draft day back in 2008, didn’t work out for the Pirates. I wish Pedro no ill will in his future endeavors, but it’s hard for me envision him finding success here in Pittsburgh past this season.