On the Pirates: From the outside looking in
No player hit more home runs in the majors in the past seven days than the four by Pedro Alvarez.
Nplayer hit for a higher average than the .533 by Neil Walker.
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The kids have been more than all right of late.
They have been ... well, what precisely?
Merely July hot? Or revealing flashes of their futures?
"McCutchen, I love," began J.P. Ricciardi, longtime Toronto Blue Jays general manager and now ESPN analyst. He mentioned the one member of the Pirates' core four -- center fielder Andrew McCutchen -- who was absent for the past Monday-Thursday window in which Jose Tabata, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez put up this combined stat line without him in front of them: 20 for 48 (.416), 4 homers, 5 doubles, 16 RBIs.
"I've seen [McCutchen] play more than once. I think he's going to be a very good player for a long time. ... He's a great player to have in the middle of the diamond. They got a really good one there.
"The other guys, they're works in progress as they go through their development stage. I think it's great that they're up there. They all get a feel what happens. I think what the Pirates are doing is what a lot of clubs in their situation have to do: Go through the draft, get guys to the big leagues and watch them develop."
OK, so that's one former GM who wasn't so effusive about the kids' past week.
Here's one who is. This man, who requested anonymity, is impressed ... with Walker. "I like his swing the most," he said.
"The small window that you look at, positively or negatively, is not necessarily an indication of how they're going to do [long term]," offered Milwaukee Brewers manager Ken Macha, who saw them in three games before the All-Star break and the breakout four this past week. How they go back and forth, all the adjustment things, will be the thing that counts. The guys are very talented, and how they do as the league sees them play more, is going to determine how good they are, how their talent is going to translate in the big leagues."
Alvarez, the most ballyhooed of the rookie trio, remains something of an acquired taste around many major league front offices. By some accounts, more than a few clubs consider him to carry a certain body type, fence swing, plus average defense and running ability that screams to them: future first baseman with power.
"Every club has a different thought about what a player should be or shouldn't be," Ricciardi said. "Everybody's got a different opinion.
"Being involved in it," he added of his Toronto experience, "it's not hindsight when you make a decision where players shouldn't go. The Pirates obviously loved this guy. That's all you can go on. Maybe other teams would do it differently."
Don't misread the back-to-back, multi-homer games Tuesday and Wednesday -- the first by a player in his first 30 big league games to do it since Boston's George Scott in 1966. They came on hung breaking balls by grizzled vets on a so-so Milwaukee Brewers staff. Not that these gents are saying Alvarez won't blossom, it's just that a fortnight is no time to pass judgment.
"He's going to fail again," Ricciardi predicted of Alvarez. "There are very few Albert Pujols' who come into the major leagues and go on an upward climb."
While some still question the timing, what with Alvarez amid a 2-for-19 rut with eight strikeouts when recalled from Class AAA Indianapolis June 15, there remains little doubt of the Pirates' plan for the trio.
"You demystify the big leagues." Ricciardi said. "You let them learn the upward curve. They seem to be committed to this."
Two fellow former rookies intimately know this career arc.
Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones have been there, done that.
Jones, you recall, was summoned from the minors July 1, 2009, and promptly bashed homers on his second day, his fourth and his ninth through 12th. Thereafter, he got force-fed a diet of inside balls and junk-food pitches that helped limit him to just three homers over his final 27 games. Still, he managed to maintain an average just under .300.
He has been impressed how Tabata and Walker directly in front of him and Alvarez behind him continue to make batting adjustments akin to his and McCutchen's in 2009.
"They're showing their maturity, showing they belong here," Jones said. "The ability to make adjustments that quickly is pretty special. They're going to have to keep making adjustments. But, when they get that mistake pitch, they're not missing up there. They're crushing it.
"Pedro's definitely got the power swing. He looks like he's just more relaxed out there every day. Just taking the nice, short swing. He's got the power where he doesn't have to over-swing."
Alvarez's seven July homers were the second-most in the major leagues entering the weekend behind only -- drum roll -- the Pirates' previous homegrown, homer-bashing third baseman, Aramis Ramirez of the Chicago Cubs.
J.P. Ricciardi was asked if he could evaluate the Pirates' minor league efforts and development process. Instead, he chose to discuss something with which he was well familiar from his eight seasons as Blue Jays general manager.
The thing is, he was granted luxurious wealth in contrast to the Pirates: His past three Toronto teams had payrolls, in order, of roughly $82 million, $98 million and $80.5 million. The only time he had anything approximating the Pirates' current player payroll, the lowest in the majors, he was still spending nearly 25 percent more: $45.7 million with the 2005 Blue Jays.
"What's their payroll, 34 million bucks?" asked Ricciardi, underplaying it by some $2 million -- not counting what the Pirates are paying in deferred or departed players' income. His questioner corrected him.
Still. ... "Come on, how are the Pittsburgh Pirates going to win the NL Central with a $36 million payroll? You're sending guys into a gunfight with a knife.
"It's one thing to have that type of payroll. It's another to sit there and expect Neal [Huntington] and his staff to win with this. It's an impossible task. The days of ... it's an anomaly to win with a $34, $44, $54,$64 million payroll. There's no one out there really practicing that unless they're picking first in the draft 10 years in a row.
"All you can do is work within what you have. If that's what they give you, you have to work. I'm not making excuses for them. For the Pirates to come into fruition and compete for a championship with a $34 million payroll is very hard to believe.
"They can't bring Branch Rickey back and win with a $34 million payroll."
First Published July 25, 2010 12:00 am