After breaking out in a big way in 2013, setting career-highs in both home runs and runs batted in, it appeared as if the Pittsburgh Pirates had a star-in-the-making in infielder Pedro Alvarez. However, last season proved to be quite different for the former second overall pick, as he appeared in only 122 games, while splitting time between first and third base defensively.
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Despite his struggles, the Pirates made the postseason for the second consecutive year – but with the National League Central seemingly reloaded with Jon Lester joining the Chicago Cubs, the Cincinnati Reds’ collective health improved and the St. Louis Cardinals – per usual – poised for a division crown, a healthy, productive Alvarez would likely push the Bucs over the top. The question now is whether or not he can be the offensive powerhouse Pirates fans hope he is moving forward.
Last season, the Pittsburgh corner infielder hit 18 home runs, while driving in 56 runs across 445 plate appearances, a steep decline from his All-Star caliber 2013 campaign where he hit 36 home runs and eclipsed the century mark in RBIs for the first time in his big league career. Perhaps one of the biggest issues for the Pirates front office regarding Alvarez moving forward isn’t his work at the dish, but in the field – where he began to learn first base in 2014 – and for good reason.
At third base last season, Alvarez made 25 errors at third base – 24 of which were throwing errors, which is the highest total for a player in a single season since 2002. His staggering number of defensive miscues was helped by the fact that he missed the season’s final month with a stress fracture in his foot. Late in the season, he shifted to first base to make room for Josh Harrison – and was errorless in five games – but his future there remains uncertain – especially if he cannot deliver offensively.
David Golebiewski of Gammons Daily laid out the two potential outcomes for Alvarez in a recent piece:
"After a half-decade in the majors, Alvarez remains a tantalizing, aggravating player. It’s possible that he becomes a latter day Carlos Pena, finally making good on his top prospect status in his late twenties through better plate discipline and epic displays of strength. It’s also possible that he’s merely a lefty-swinging Mark Reynolds, a guy who could no longer cut it defensively at third and whose bat just isn’t that special at the game’s pre-eminent offensive position."
With Harrison emerging as a key part of the organization – especially after batting .315/.347/.490 across 143 games, while stepping up defensively in a big way – Alvarez has to do one of two things: either replicate his jaw-dropping power from 2013 or show that he can both handle first base and provide at least a major portion of that offensive pop he’s shown in the past. If he can handle the field at first base and provide 20 home runs and 85 RBI – he’ll be worth the risk moving forward.
However, if he struggles in the field and fails to live up to expectations offensively, don’t be surprised to see the Pirates in the market for a new first baseman next season – especially if the team is just one piece from a third straight trip to the postseason.