Pirates Spring Training: Not too early to bring comparisons to the plate

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Almost every time Pedro Alvarez swings his mighty bat around here, the names fly.

Matt Wieters.

Albert Pujols.

Ryan Howard.

Then Manny Sanguillen dropped the big one.

"Pedro Alvarez has Willie Stargell's swing," the patriarch of Pirates catchers was saying Thursday. "I played with him a lot of years. I know that swing."

So you watch. Then you discover everybody else seems to be watching, too. On Friday, Sanguillen sidled over to a batting practice on Pirate City's Field 4, away from his usual bullpen haunts, to catch a glimpse. No more is this the second-overall selection of June's draft. No more is this the Vanderbilt third baseman with whose agent Pirates management performed a contract dance for 2Â 1/2 months. No more is this the kid whose diagnosed tendinitis in his knees left him out of shape in January's minicamp.

Nowadays, he's a show, even if in 2009 he may not make The Show.

"You see that swing?" Sanguillen asked after a Friday round of an otherwise ordinary batting practice. "Wow. Power. He's going to be something else." Sanguillen cast a look at the 40-foot batter's eye 410 feet deep in center field. "Next year, you're going to see him hit it over that wall in center. Just like Willie."

Kent Tekulve and Bill Mazeroski, Pirates alumni assistants and teammates of the beloved captain known as Pops, swear that from their outfield-shagging vantages they can barely tell who's batting. And former manager Bill Virdon arched his eyebrows at the mention and replied, "That's quite a comparison."

"That's a pretty good comparison, actually," added Pine-Richland's Neil Walker, a fellow first-rounder and third baseman in the system, where Alvarez most likely will start this season in Class A. "Definitely, he's already got the power that Willie had. He doesn't use the 36-ounce bat that Willie did, but it's close.

"It's a strong swing. An extremely strong swing."

You scrutinize the form, comparing it to faded memories, and Sanguillen's mind's eye appears correct.

Alvarez steps into the left side of the batter's box and taps home plate with his bat. He takes a wide stance. He makes a windmill motion -- just once, the right hand only, in contrast to Stargell's two hands and two windmills or more. He points the bat high and behind his left ear. The bat wiggles slightly.

Here comes the pitch. The left elbow cocks. Hands. Bat. Sweeping uppercut.

His trunk rotates to where his chest faces the field. He follows through with one hand, behind his ample back and posterior, ending one-handed with the bat down by his trailing left leg.

So many facets -- stance, windmill, bat cocked so, swing, uppercut, rotation, follow through -- suggest that he is channeling Stargell when you realize: His No. 53 does add up to that famous 8.

Other names fly, just like his batting-practice hits.

Minor league catcher Steve Lerud called the sound "deafening" when Alvarez's bat meets ball. He likened Alvarez to the hottest prospect in baseball today: Wieter, the Baltimore Orioles catcher chosen in the 2007 draft right after Class A pitcher Danny Moskos, who has watched some of this camp as a spectator waiting for the Pirates' minor league camp to begin.

"It's loud, man," Lerud said of Alvarez's bat. "It's special. I mean, I played against Wieters all last year [in Class A and AA]. That's the kind of guy he reminds you of."

"That kid's got some tools to win with," outfielder Nyjer Morgan said of Alvarez, his BP mate most of the week. "The organization did the right thing by getting that kid. I think it's that scary bat everybody's looking for. That could be the Pujols in our lineup."

"We have a big bat like Philadelphia now," Sanguillen said, referring to Howard.

Of course, it's excruciatingly early in Alvarez's career -- the guy hasn't yet played an exhibition game, which start Wednesday against Philadelphia. And folks have gushed prematurely about prospects throughout the game's history. Nobody could forget Pirate City's own Woody Huyke writing in the opening-game rookie league report for Chad Hermansen: Walks on water.

But Stargell? A Hall of Famer with 475 home runs in 21 seasons? A slice of homer history with placards measuring long-distance shots at the Astrodome plus Three Rivers, Olympic and Veterans stadiums, though the two he hit out of Dodger Stadium may still be marked on passing clouds? A Pirates standard, with a 12-foot statue at PNC Park unveiled shortly before he died on 2001 opening day?

"He mentioned it the other day. I told him there's no way ... ," Alvarez said of Sanguillen's assessment.

"But if he thinks so, I'd definitely be honored to be compared to a legend like that."

First Published February 23, 2009 5:00 AM


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