Hot Stove: Pirates set to push Alvarez

Top pick will start in Lynchburg if he shows he is ready

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If the Pirates like what they see of Pedro Alvarez in the spring, he could skip the first three rungs of the professional ladder on his way to Pittsburgh.

Management's plan, as detailed by director of player development Kyle Stark, is to have the franchise's prized draft pick start out in high Class A at Lynchburg, Va., or, if Alvarez is not deemed ready, in low Class A with the new affiliate in Charleston, W.Va.

"If Pedro's ready to go, we're going to be aggressive with him," Stark said. "It depends on what we see from him, how he adjusts to the game, what kind of shape he's in, a lot of factors. But I can tell you we're not going to rush him just to make up for lost time."

Most draft picks start out in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League or the short-season New York-Penn League. But, because of Alvarez's much-publicized contract dispute, he was unable to play in either of those late-summer leagues. His only action came in September with a month in the Florida Instructional League, but that is not considered formal.

No statistics were kept for Alvarez's performance in Florida, but team officials who witnessed him -- including Pirates manager John Russell -- were effusive in their praise of his hitting and satisfied with his defense at third base.

"As advertised," Stark said of the bat. "He projects to be a middle-of-the-order bat, and that's exactly what he looked like."

A debut in high Class A would not be unprecedented. The Baltimore Orioles started catcher Matt Wieters -- the player the Pirates bypassed in the 2007 draft -- at that level before he quickly moved to Class AA on his way to becoming Baseball America's minor league player of the year.

As for other assignments ...

Pitchers Brad Lincoln and Danny Moskos, the Pirates' previous two first-round picks, will be in a position to compete for the rotation in Class AA Altoona. Neither has pitched at a higher level than Lynchburg.

Of the prospects currently on the 40-man roster: Outfielder Jose Tabata could make his debut with Class AAA Indianapolis, but he also might stay in Altoona if management decides it does not want two center fielders at the same level with Andrew McCutchen. Catcher Steve Lerud and reliever Jeff Sues should start out with Altoona. The same is true of second baseman Jim Negrych, who is not on the 40-man but was the Pirates' 2008 minor league player of the year. And reliever Ronald Uviedo should start out with Lynchburg.

Buried treasure

• Third baseman Andy LaRoche, who struggled immensely in all facets in his two months with the Pirates, has had two cage sessions this winter with hitting coach Don Long. The stressing point, as it was late in the season, has been regaining timing between his upper and lower body. "The kid's been working hard," Russell said, "and we're hopeful he can be a good bat for us."

• Meanwhile, Adam LaRoche is getting an early start toward hitting -- and working out -- at a new facility he added to his Kansas ranch. Frank Velasquez, the Pirates' strength specialist, paid a visit in the past month to help out.

• Five 40-man roster players remain active in winter ball: Shortstop Luis Cruz is batting .282 in Mexico, catcher Robinzon Diaz .200 in the Dominican, and Tabata .286 in Venezuela. Romulo Sanchez has an 11.74 ERA and Uviedo a 1.80 ERA in Venezuela.

• Expect the Pirates' next international wave to come with the hiring of a full-time scout in Taiwan.

• Busiest guy on the phone this winter might be Doug Mientkiewicz, who has made a habit of calling teammates to ensure they are staying in shape. And this is especially noteworthy, considering Mientkiewicz not only is a free agent but also has yet to receive an offer from the Pirates.

• Something to ponder as the Pirates form their bullpen: Sean Burnett's left-handed opponents batted .171 against him. Only three pitchers fared better: J.C. Romero, Tim Byrdak and Oliver Perez.

• Two of the Pirates' relievers have married this offseason, Matt and Jennifer Capps, John and Karey Grabow.

• Only 54 days until pitchers and catchers report.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at .


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