BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata pushed through the clubhouse doors and clattered their way in spikes to the Pirate City fields for another spring morning of polish, taking steps toward Pittsburgh and a nebulous future some 17 years in the making, but still just beyond reach.
They're getting there.
Maybe not as fast as fans want. Maybe not as fast as they and fellow future building block Brad Lincoln want. But the ascent is inexorable, inevitable, in ... two months? Three? More?
Futures are torturous that way.
True, Andrew McCutchen is the franchise face, present and promising, but Alvarez, Tabata and Lincoln are the next fresh faces in line to try to restore winning baseball to Pittsburgh. They are the power bat at a power position, the attacking hitter with speed and outfield defense and the power arm to build around McCutchen, Lastings Milledge, Ryan Doumit, pitching pieces. They are the three bricks shy of the majors.
Each continues to climb through the minors, over obstacles. Lincoln, 24, the fifth overall choice in the 2006 draft, required Tommy John surgery the next April.
TO OPENING DAY
The Post-Gazette's five-day preview of the Pirates' 124th season:
Tabata, 21, once was a top prospect in the New York Yankees' fertile organization before they lost faith and shipped him here in the Xavier Nady-Damaso Marte trade in July 2008. Since then, he has endured immaturity and injuries as well as the circumstances that surround the presence of his twice-his-age wife in a Tampa jail as she awaits resolution of her case.
Alvarez, 23, the second overall choice in the 2008 draft, spent months in a bitter contract skirmish, more months slowed by tendinitis and weight gain, then got burdened early in his first Pirates spring training by comparisons to Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard when guest instructor Manny Sanguillen dropped the big one: "I know that swing. Pedro Alvarez has Willie Stargell's swing."
"I hear a lot of people talk about it," Alvarez said. "I'm definitely fortunate to be considered part of the future of the Pirates."
Tabata smiled at the mention of their linked Pirates destiny, these three Class AAA Indianapolis Indians and onetime Class AA Altoona Curve mates. Alvarez and Lincoln are equally excited by the linkage of their futures.
"You know, because they're so good," Tabata said. "Hard players. Nice guys. I got an opportunity to play with both guys. It feels like family."
"There's a lot of great talent here," Lincoln said. "And that's what you have to filter through to get where you want to be eventually. Yeah, it's on your mind ... sometimes. We can play GM all we want to, but, in the end, we have no control over who's where at what point of the season. For where I'm at, the position that I'm in right now, I'm knocking on the door. So, it's one of those things where I got to keep working and waiting on that phone call."
To so many of this Pirates generation, management cannot start dialing soon enough.
Meet three baseball men with singular perspectives on this Big Three.
• Neal Huntington, the general manager with the ultimate fingers and phone in question, tries to downplay the trio -- but not the imperative that this pipeline needs to keep churning out major-league-ready players.
"They're just three guys who happen to be in a similar point in the development curve. One may get here sooner than the others; they all may get here at similar times.
"In reality, that's the type of grouping we need every year. We need to have three or four options -- actually, preferably more -- ready to go or on the horizon ... for us to be successful.
"It can't be a one-group thing that we hope collectively comes together. It has to be year in and year out."
• Carlos Garcia has been in their spikes.
In 1993, when the franchise's record losing streak began, the future at that time was pinned to -- sound familiar? -- three top prospects who played together in Class AAA: first-third baseman Kevin Young, outfielder Al Martin and shortstop-second baseman Carlos Garcia.
"A lot of people talked about us at that time and, sure, we used to talk about it," began Garcia, the Pirates' first-base and infield coach, meaning he soon could be instructing Alvarez every day. "We wanted to go up there and show we were ready to play and put the organization back in a competitive way.
"I remember the first game we played, we all three got a hit. The headline was: 'The rookies are OK.' "
None of them blossomed into stars. Garcia was named to an All-Star team -- every team needs representation. But each became little more than a capable everyday player on Pirates teams seeking players to replace Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds, Jose Lind, Andy Van Slyke, et al.
McCutchen's presence on the 2010 roster marks the first time since 2000 that the Pirates will open a season with a player previously ranked by Baseball America as the organization's No. 1 prospect -- he was theirs in 2007 and '08. The last: Chad Hermansen.
The pipeline has been that low on talent. Not even a gurgle in a decade.
• Kansas City Royals first-base coach Eddie Rodriguez was the manager when two of these three were leading Team USA to the World Cup title in Italy in September. Lincoln was vintage Lincoln: He went 3-0 with a 2.70 ERA, won the championship game against Cuba, gave up 23 hits in 231/3 innings and struck out 12.
Alvarez was vintage Alvarez: He had five home runs and 12 RBIs in 15 games, batted .259 and broke the Team USA record in World Cup play with three homers in a game.
"Two great kids, and I think both are going to be good major league players," Rodriguez said. "Brad Lincoln really impressed me. He's a solid pitcher who shows a lot. And Alvarez is going to be a solid hitter. He's got plus power and can do a lot of things. [Defensively,] very impressive. Very athletic.
"Alvarez needs a few at-bats to get his feet under him. I think Lincoln is ready. I think he really learned a lot in that tournament, a lot about himself and his pitches. He just needs a few more innings, and he should be able to pitch up here."
It was some first nine months for Lincoln in the Pirates' organization.
He was drafted June 6, 2006, just ahead of No. 7 overall Clayton Kershaw and two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum of San Francisco at No. 10.
But he was shut down Aug. 6, 2006, after 232/3 minor league innings because of an oblique strain and underwent Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow (right) April 3, 2007.
Was he another Bobby Bradley, the club's eighth-overall pick in 1999, whose career was dramatically shortened by injuries?
"For something like that to happen to me right as I got into pro ball, it was kind of devastating," Lincoln said.
After a 6-10 combined record in Class A in a post-surgery 2008, Lincoln dazzled last season with a 2.28 ERA in Altoona and went 6-2 in Indianapolis. He pitched Team USA to gold. He took one giant stride.
"Oh, absolutely, 2009 was a good year for me," Lincoln said. "I really think I matured as a person and a ballplayer. Everything came back [from] pre-surgery. I got into a rhythm. I got comfortable. I was able to pitch, just be free and easy and not have to worry 'Do I have to do something more because I'm at this level?' Once I got to the Triple-A level, it made me realize: '... One step away from getting there.' "
Huntington added, "To this point in time, it's been a great success story."
His homework for the start of this Class AAA Indianapolis season: Learn to trust the changeup, use it in critical situations, and improve the fastball command. With that fastball, Huntington said, "If he can live down, in and out, he can be a very good major league pitcher for a long time."
Pirates pitching coach Joe Kerrigan sounded as if he were impressed three days into spring training: "Lincoln's got the big arm, he's got the stuff. Needs some more polish to his changeup ... but what young guy doesn't?"
"I'm not going to try to be Superman or anything like that to get there any quicker," Lincoln said of a Pirates promotion in 2010. "I'm going to be who I am."
• Forget the deadline trade in 2008 and the seven-week, right hamstring injury last summer. No other minor leaguer endured this heart-roiling experience: A wife whom he said tricked him into believing she was pregnant, then got charged in March 2009 in Bradenton for abducting a baby to pass off as theirs.
A year later, all are impressed by Tabata's physical and emotional maturation. Thinner, firmer, he follows a conditioning regimen to try to maintain his body's health. Batting .250 before the hamstring, he benefited from Alvarez's late-June arrival: Tabata then hit .333 with 12 doubles and 14 RBIs in 37 games.
"With him behind me, they throw some fastballs to me. That was a good idea last year, I think. I want the same thing this year," Tabata said, ending with a laugh.
"Defensively, he's there," said Altoona manager Matt Walbeck. "Offensively, he's knocking on the door."
Tabata's final refinements relate to a swing that previously was too long and plate patience.
"We want him to be a good hitter and not worry about power," Huntington said. "We believe the power will come as he matures. He's 21. He uses the whole field. He has elements where we project power.
"But, most importantly, we want him to continue what he does, and that's use the whole field, that's a command of the strike zone, that's attacking pitches when he hits them."
Tabata said: "In Triple-A, against good opponents, I want to have a good year. I think I'm ready. I know myself."
• Not since Barry Bonds in 1986, after just 115 minor league games, has a prospect's impending arrival so excited the Pirates' audience as Alvarez's.
Skeptics argue that a penurious Pirates front office is stalling his arbitration clock by waiting until June or so to promote him, much like with McCutchen last summer. Yet Huntington strenuously defends his blueprint: No prospect will rise before his time, and they wave the checklists to prove such a point.
Alvarez has played 126 professional games. In them, he has clubbed 27 homers, driven in 95 runs and batted .288. Everywhere he went, they won: Lynchburg wound up Carolina League champs after he left; Altoona was 26-51 without him, 34-26 with him.
"Then, to see him in spring training, there has been improvement from then to now," Altoona's Walbeck said of the player whose conditioning progressed to the point where third base could be his place of business for years, if not his career. "You can see he has more focus after having played his first full season, to come into spring training he feels like he belongs."
Garcia added, "[Fans] are going to see him this year. He's preparing himself to be ready for that moment."
Left unchecked on Alvarez's list, Huntington said: "It's just a matter of consistency pitch to pitch, both offensively and defensively. Continued maturation and experience. Understanding what Triple-A and major league pitchers are going to try to do to him and staying within himself. And realizing if he scrapes the back of the wall it's the same thing as if it's hit 750 feet beyond the wall -- it still counts."
"At times, people may have high expectations, but no one has higher expectations than myself," Alvarez said. "Whatever expectations anyone has of me, or whatever the organization's expectations are of me, I guarantee mine are higher.
"The same way with Andrew last year: [He was] disappointed he didn't make the team, but he also knew that he had to go continue to develop," manager John Russell relayed as an example. "I see that in the [three] guys we sent out this year. They realize there are still some things they need to accomplish. The driving force to get back here, I think, is going to be in all of them."
Chuck Finder: email@example.com . First Published April 5, 2010 4:00 AM