Baseball 2009: A bat worth waiting for
Share with others:
BRADENTON, Fla. -- He is the most eagerly anticipated, breathlessly celebrated bat around Pittsburgh since ... what, Michael Keaton in cape and cowl?
Since an early first-round draftee a few summers before that?
"I think the last guy I saw," roving coordinator Rich Donnelly said, pausing to search his memory for the most recent young Pirates swinger reminiscent of Pedro Alvarez, "was named Bonds, his first year in camp."
That was Barry Lamar Bonds.
- Friday: Five reasons why the Pirates finally will be winners again ... or not
- Today: Pedro Alvarez is the franchise's brightest light perhaps in years
- Sunday: The Jason Bay trade, a watershed moment, was just part of "the process"
- Monday: The march begins in St. Louis ... to a record 17th losing season?
That was 1986.
"I remember the first time he swung, everybody looked at each other: 'Oh, wowwww,' " Donnelly continued. "That's the first thing you said with Pedro.
"That's what No. 1 picks do, they excite you."
So there you have it, yet another name dropped at the feet of the next great Pirates hitting hope.
This spring, before the No. 2 selection from the June draft appeared in his inaugural regular-season game -- he'll start at third base and hit in the middle of high-Class A Lynchburg's order -- Pedro Manuel Alvarez, 22, of Vanderbilt University via New York City's Washington Heights has been compared to:
Willie Stargell (Manny Sanguillen was reminded of Pops by an eerily similar swing).
Ryan Howard (More Manny, as in: Now the Pirates have a big bat like the Phillies).
Albert Pujols (Courtesy of Nyjer Morgan, who took batting practice with him).
Matt Wieters (From Steve Lerud, who likened him to baseball's top prospect).
And now the inimitable Bonds.
No pressure, eh?
Then try on this for size, with size being an Alvarez issue we'll get to shortly: One former Vanderbilt teammate and another sizzling major league top prospect, pitcher David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays, predicted nothing but All-Star games and MVPs in Alvarez's future.
"He's going to be a name to watch for the next 10, 15 years," said Price, the first pick of the 2007 draft and a guy who pitched in the World Series the next season, as a raw rookie. "He deserves all the success he's going to have. He's got everything. He's got the work ethic. He's got the ability. He's got the mindset. He's got it. Whatever it is, he hasit. That's what it is with Pedro."
What it isn't for Alvarez: a burden.
He welcomes expectation as if it were a fastball under the chin. Bring it. Names, history, everything.
"Some people ask me, 'How do you deal with the pressure? How do you deal with this?' " began Alvarez, a kid who grew up on New York's sandlots -- no street stickball, by orders of his protective father the cab driver -- admiring third baseman such as Wade Boggs and Scott Rolen, then took a chance on the Vanderbilt route after declining $700,000-plus from Boston in 2005 after Boggs' old team made him a 14th-round selection.
"You know, I don't view it as a problem, but, if you want to call it that, it's a good problem to have. The fact that there are people who want to see me up there, it's thrilling for me. How can you not be? You kidding me? That's why it's so easy to work hard to get where I want to be and play for these people. I want to play for the people of Pittsburgh. I'm going to do everything I can to get up there."
Of his bat, there seems to be little doubt.
His body, one that grew overweight from tendinitis and inactivity after signing in late September following a protracted dance of negotiations and allegations, remains the sticking point.
In short, if there is a roadblock to his fast track to the majors (a September call-up and mid-2010 arrival?), if there is an impediment to fulfilling the expectations, it's that the Pirates prefer him phat rather than fat.
"Pedro's learned a valuable lesson about his body and about what he's going to need to do for hopefully the next 17 years of his career," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "He's going to have to make good food choices. He's probably going to have to work harder than most will in the weight room. There's some work that needs to be done and some maintenance [conditioning and dieting] ... not only for this year, but for every year for the rest of his career."
Pirates director of player development Kyle Stark reiterated: "I hesitate to put the label 'fast-track' on anyone; however, Pedro's [college and international] background certainly aligns with other players who have moved through the minor leagues quickly. ... He hasn't played a regular game since last May, though, and will need to get into the grind of playing every day. Pedro is a quality young man whom the city of Pittsburgh is going to like. He has an engaging personality and works hard. I believe he's learned a lot already, and we are excited about where he's headed in the future."
One National League scout, who requested anonymity, doesn't foresee that future lasting long at third.
"His frame will need to slim down and quicken up to play third base," this NL scout said. "Looks like he may migrate across the diamond [to the power-hitting spot of first base], but he has the bat to do that."
Alvarez wants Pirates fans to watch him now, assess him on baseball terms -- not last summer's wranglings. That contract business, dripping with late-night intrigue and accusations of impropriety before resulting in a $6,335,000 deal, is in no way indicative of who he is. Pay no attention to the machinations behind agent Scott Boras' curtain.
"Now that I've started my professional career, I want them to see how hard I work and what I put into this game," Alvarez said. "I want them to see me as Pedro Alvarez the baseball player and judge me for that. If I don't work hard, they can get on me. [But] I'm not going to put myself in that predicament."
He spent a month in major league camp, studying, toiling, asking questions.
"He's a special kid," second baseman Freddy Sanchez said. "A lot of us didn't know what to think, to be honest, with everything that went on last year. But he came in and showed us he's a special player and great off the field, too. He listened, learned, did everything you'd want to see."
The best part of those four big league weeks, Alvarez added, was "the whole aura of it. You get such good treatment. At the same time, a lot is expected.
"I've had high expectations for myself for the whole time. But, you know, this is on a different level. They have the resources to help you, but they won't come after you. You got to know what you want. You learn to manage yourself. It's a job now, you know."
One last springtime tale: Witnesses long may remember the 440-foot-or-more, two-out, two-on, ninth-inning, holy-hyphens home run that Alvarez blasted off Tampa Bay veteran reliever Joe Nelson March 15, the day before the Pirates sent him back to Pirate City feeling good about himself.
Yet Donnelly maintains that a homer for future reference, a standard by which few others can be gauged, came in a February batting practice on Pirate City's Field 1.
A 550-foot home run. Stargellesque. Bondsian.
"Go over there and measure it. That's because everybody doubts it," Donnelly said of the field bordered by a lake and then a golf course. "It's 370 to right-center, it's 90 feet to the lake, and it's 90 feet over the lake. He hit it to the far edge of the lake. I've seen it.
"Just shows you what he can do."
2007 * Daniel Moskos (4) Closer moved to starter in Lynchburg last year, shelled to 5.95 ERA.
2006* Brad Lincoln (4) Tommy John surgery in 2007; last year was 6-9 with 4.67 ERA with two Class A teams.
2005 * Andrew McCutchen (11) Center fielder of future ... will future be May? June? Later?
2004 * Neil Walker (11) Moved from catcher to third base; in Class AAA but willing to be MLB utility guy.
2003 # Paul Maholm (8) Opening Day starter; burgeoning star?
2002 Bryan Bullington (1) In Toronto Blue Jays' minors; picked one ahead of B.J. Upton.
2001 John van Benschoten (8) Slugger turned pitcher turned failed experiment; in White Sox's minors.
2000 # Sean Burnett (19) One of last relievers to make Pirates this spring.
1999 Bobby Bradley (8) A rising star until three arm/shoulder surgeries; out of pro baseball.
1998 Clint Johnson (15) Another van Bencshcoten experiment; out of pro baseball.
1997 J.J. Davis (8) Slugging outfielder who later wanted to pitch; out of baseball.
1996 Kris Benson (1) Just landed work in Texas rotation
1995 Chad Hermansen (10) Can "walk on water," said first-game report; couldn't hit; out of baseball.
1994 Mark Farris (11) Shortstop later became Texas A&M quarterback, then insurance salesman.
1993 Charles Peterson (22) Outfielder chosen for affordability; not long after was out of baseball.
1992 Jason Kendall (23) Finally, one that stuck around; now catching for Milwaukee.
1991 Jon Farrell (24) Florida catcher moved to outfielder; out of baseball five years later.
1990 Kurt Miller (5) Pitched in 44 MLB games, none with Pirates.
1989 Willie Greene (18) 86 HRs, 307 RBIs, nine MLB seasons, four teams -- none Pirates.
1988 Austin Manahan (13) Soon after out of baseball; picked one ahead of Tino Martinez.
1987 Mark Merchant (2) Outfielder traded later to Seattle, fell off map.
1986 Jeff King (1) Underappreciated third and first baseman, made money in KC and retired.
1985 Barry Bonds (6).
* -- in Pirates' minor-league system # -- on Pirates' roster
First Published April 4, 2009 12:00 am