Pirates' goal for Pedro Alvarez: Improve overall game

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DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The labels continued to change for Pedro Alvarez as the previous four spring trainings unfolded -- top prospect, promising sophomore, bounce-back candidate, breakout candidate. Whatever you choose to call this version of Alvarez -- All-Star, slugger, cleanup hitter -- he is seeking upgrades.

"Everything you can think of, I try to improve and I try to better myself at so I can help this team out best I can," Alvarez said.

The 36 home runs Alvarez hit in 2013 helped his team plenty, as did his .353 average and three home runs in the National League Division Series. Alvarez hopes to touch up the overall package and did not specify an area of desired offensive improvement, but opportunities exist to get better.

"The value of his at-bats in 0-2 counts showed up, but it's something he can still [improve]," manager Clint Hurdle said. "I do think the strikeout number can be shrunk to some degree. To think that he's ever going to be under 100 is unrealistic. Opportunities with a runner at third and [less] than two outs, driving in runs without getting hits."

Alvarez's 186 strikeouts led the NL in 2013. His batting average and on-base percentage dropped from their 2012 totals.

"Just take on the game as it comes with the intention of trying to learn a little bit more every day, in everything that is the game of baseball, and continue to grow," Alvarez said.

In an exhibition game Friday against the Toronto Blue Jays, Alvarez doubled in his first two at-bats. Both doubles went to the middle of the field, the same area denoted by a line of orange cones set up at Pirate City in batting practice to emphasize the team-wide strategy.

"We have an approach to look out, over [the plate]," Hurdle said. "We want to look at getting the ball up, looking out over, hitting the ball to the big part of the park. You saw all of spring training us having cones from gap to gap, trying to stay focused in the middle of the field."

For Alvarez to improve defensively, he said, he must stay limber, which allows him to move into the best possible position to field the ball.

"Defensively, there were times he made every play you could ask a third baseman to make," Hurdle said. "The consistency has got to improve because the total number of errors is not something that anybody would want.

"The chances ramped up dramatically last year for him. Some of it [was due] to his positioning, some to his range, some to his experience."

Though errors are subjective and by no means the definitive measure of a player's fielding prowess, Alvarez made 27 in 2013, more than any other third baseman.

"It's a combination of reps and staying light on your feet out there," Alvarez said of defensive improvement.

Alvarez can choose any number of successes, be it his two consecutive seasons of 30 home runs, All-Star selection or playoff performance, from which to draw confidence. He finds it elsewhere.

"Honestly, what will give me the most confidence is to get the opportunity to go out there every day and play," Alvarez said. "I'm very grateful for every opportunity I get, and they just gave me all the confidence I need to want to come every day to keep playing, keep working hard."

Alvarez prepared for this season the same way he has in the past, taking a break before beginning offseason workouts. He voided a contract option for 2014 because he had enough service time to do so and agreed to a $4.25 million contract, avoiding salary arbitration.

"There are a lot of areas where he's still going to get better with experience, intelligence and knowledge of the league," Hurdle said. "I know he's not satisfied, by any means. He started to scratch the surface and did some things to get some notice, but he knows there's still a lot more to his game that he can put into play."

Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG.

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