ST. LOUIS -- There is no more important player to the Pirates' present and future than third baseman Pedro Alvarez.
Not wonderful rookie phenom Gerrit Cole, who gave the team the season-sustaining lift it needed Friday in Game 2 of the National League Division Series by pitching six strong innings in a 7-1 win against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Not center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who was the league's Most Valuable Player this season and soon will get the hardware to prove it.
Not alleged can't-miss kids Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco unless, of course, they turn out to be the next Doug Drabek and Barry Bonds.
No one in the Pirates organization has his amazing power, which he showed again Friday in the win.
Few people in baseball can hit a ball like he can.
Yet, I hear people complain about Alvarez, more than they do about any other Pirates player. He often chases pitches out of the strike zone. He strikes out a lot, 186 times this season. He isn't likely to hit for a much higher average than his .233 this season.
It's true, all true.
But there's no one I would rather watch hit than Alvarez. He's this generation's Ralph Kiner. You have to be pretty old to remember Kiner, so let me tell you something about him. Fans who came to see his bad Pirates teams would stay at Forbes Field long after a game was decided to watch him bat one more time. They couldn't wait to see how far he would hit the ball.
So it is with Alvarez.
"There's not a park he can't hit it out of," manager Clint Hurdle marveled after Alvarez combined with Cole to do most of the heavy lifting in a win that, with no exaggeration, saved the Pirates' season.
Alvarez drove a home run 418 feet to center field to give the Pirates a 3-0 lead in the third inning, more than enough support for the redoubtable Cole. Alvarez hit one 437 feet to right field in the 9-1 loss Thursday night in Game 1.
They're still not sure here that the ball has landed.
I'm thinking Allegheny River for Alvarez in Game 3 Sunday afternoon at PNC Park.
"He's as strong as anyone I've ever played with," Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said. "People want to talk about his batting average or his errors. That's not what I look at. You can put those numbers aside. The intangibles he brings by being able to change the game with one swing of the bat are priceless."
Actually, teams figure to line up one day soon to put a value on Alvarez's skills. The number should be significantly more than $100 million. I will explain in just a moment.
Let's go back to Hurdle.
"This is a show-up game for us. We had to show up," he said. "Nothing better than Pedro getting us running hot right away."
It wasn't just the third-inning home run, although that was a thing of beauty. In the second inning, Alvarez hit a one-out double that bounced over the fence in left-center field. He scored the game's first run on a two-out single by Cole, of all people.
Here's the beautiful thing about Alvarez's swing: Even when he doesn't barrel the ball, he still can hit a double to the gap.
"He misses balls and they still carry over the fence," Hurdle gushed. "He can drive it out from line to line."
It's nice to think people are appreciating what Alvarez brings to the Pirates more than they let on. Walker is right. Many fans seem to concentrate on the average and the strikeouts and the 27 errors he had at third base this season. But if that's all they're focusing on with Alvarez, they're missing something special. The Pirates haven't had this kind of truly legitimate home-run hitter since Willie Stargell.
"He's the guy you want up there in a big situation," Walker said.
"He's turned into a major league run-producer," Hurdle added. "He's a threat every time he walks up there."
Keeping Alvarez is going to cost the Pirates a fortune. He is eligible for salary arbitration after this season and the next two before he can become a free agent after the 2016 season.
Alvarez won't get the really silly money for a few years. But he will get it. His kind of power is so rare. You can bet his agent, Scott Boras, will put a price tag on it big enough to make baseball owners cry.
Baseball's most recent big deal went to Hunter Pence, who re-signed with the San Francisco Giants for five years and $90 million. If Pence is worth $90 million, what is Alvarez going to be worth? Pence can't carry Alvarez's ...
You get the point.
The Pirates need to find a way to keep Alvarez. They need to buy out his arbitration years and try to buy out a few free-agent years, as well. You know, the way they did with McCutchen.
Except Alvarez will cost a lot more.
Walker says Alvarez's value to the team is priceless?
I say Alvarez will be worth every penny.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published October 5, 2013 4:00 AM