With homegrown (literally) second baseman Neil Walker likely returning from the disabled list next week, the Pittsburgh Pirates have some serious decisions to make.
Scrappy utility infielder/outfielder Josh Harrison is surprising all of MLB this year with an .821 OPS and has just one error in 18 infield starts. Harrison is making $513,000 this year and is not a free agent until 2018. Harrison will certainly make at least five times his 2014 salary next year in arbitration if his OPS stays near .800 the rest of this season and his defense remains solid.
Pedro Alvarez, an All Star last year with 35 homers and 100 RBI – along with an impressive postseason debut, in which he collected an RBI in all six playoff games Pittsburgh played – has taken a huge step back from 2013. Alvarez’s offensive production actually declined last year, despite the sexy numbers, from a .784 OPS and 180 K’s in 2012 to a .770 OPS and an absolutely staggering 186 K’s, and just 48 walks, in 2013. But this year Alvarez has been the Pirates’ LVP, and moreover one of the biggest drags in MLB: 17 errors (the most in baseball), 70 strikeouts, a .235 batting average, and an OPS of just .718. He’s also batting .210 against lefties and has even been pinch-hit for against them recently. An unforgivable TOOTBLAN in Chicago today only added to the Alvarez enigma.
Perhaps most damning – as a player the MLB Network recently described as a “superstar” – is that Alvarez is hitting under .200 with runners in scoring position and has struck out in over a third of his at-bats with runners in scoring position. That’s a player – especially one expected to hit cleanup, though Alvarez’s disappointing start has got him dropped to 7th on most of Clint Hurdle’s recent lineup cards – hurting his team in a big way. 22-year-old rookie Gregory Polanco, hitting near .400 in his first ten games with the Pirates, already looks more like a major-league hitter than Alvarez.
But Alvarez is also hurting two other things besides his team’s chances in the wildcard race: his leverage in arbitration this upcoming offseason and the Pirates’ ability to trade him for much of anything.
So what does Pirates management do? The hard part is making decisions geared toward future seasons, i.e. Alvarez’s arbitration and his trade value. If he continues to strike out around 180 times a year and drop his OPS each season, the Pirates have obviously waited too long to trade Alvarez; but if the 27-year-old “El Toro” ever solidifies his defense and combines his immense power with something resembling plate discipline, he would be a perennial MVP candidate. Brandon Moss and Jose Bautista come to mind as former Buccos who became star sluggers after the Pirates gave up on them. In both cases, the jettisons were understandable – but the trick is to sell high, which at this point would take keeping Alvarez in the lineup to see whether his slowly increasing batting average and OPS this month will evolve into the kind of sexy RBI and HR numbers he’s put up in previous seasons.
But then, if Alvarez goes on a tear again, keeping him around – which would probably cost more than $10 million just next season – makes sense too.
The easy part is the short term, which ostensibly means focusing on winning, and winning right now. Josh Harrison is getting on base, and playing good defense. Pedro Alvarez is doing neither. Shortstop Jordy Mercer, who came out of the gate in 2014 with an anemic bat, is hitting just under .300 in June with four homers. Alvarez’s OPS has risen from .667 in April to .706 in May to .819 in June (before today’s game against the Cubs), but he only has one home run this month, and is simply not driving in runs.
The immediate question is: Who gives the Pirates a better chance to win, if you’re writing the lineup card tomorrow? I’d go with Harrison, and give him a chance to prove he’s not an everyday player, rather than continuing with Alvarez, who has yet to prove this year that he’s an everyday player. Alvarez’s horrible defense, combined with his inability to hit lefties or drive in runs, make him a worse option than Harrison at the moment.
But the moment isn’t everything. The long view, the bigger question, is what Pedro Alvarez’s future is in MLB and with the Pirates. And that question makes me glad I’m not a GM.