Inbox: Is Alvarez ready for prime time?
Beat reporter Jenifer Langosch answers Bucs fans' questions
When can the fans expect to see Pedro Alvarez in Pittsburgh? That bat somewhere in the middle of the lineup is an upgrade over most in the lineup already.
-- Andrew R., Burgettstown, Pa.
Stay patient, my friends. Alvarez is coming. We are nearing the point in May where the Pirates could bring Alvarez up and still ensure that his first arbitration year is pushed back. So, anyone who is convinced the Pirates' decision to have him in Triple-A is solely financially related -- which I don't -- can't use that argument much longer.
Alvarez will be here sometime this summer. It's just a matter of how quickly he ticks off the remaining checkpoints the Pirates have laid out for him. The third baseman struggled offensively in April -- much as he did during the first month of the 2009 season. The Bucs believe that was largely a result of Alvarez trying too hard to prove that he is deserving of all the hype. There have been signs recently, though, that suggest he's getting past that and is about to let his natural talent play out. In a seven-game stretch beginning on April 30, Alvarez drove in 17 runs.
As of the beginning of the this week, Alvarez was still only hitting .219 against left-handers, which is one improvement that management needs to see before feeling comfortable calling him up. There's still some work to be done on the defensive end, too. When those two things, in particular, are achieved, he'll be knocking.
The Pirates' front office has stated in the past that players wouldn't be given "scholarships" and that they were expected to perform. Given that sentiment, at what point does the play of Charlie Morton and Jeff Clement begin to qualify as a "scholarship?"
-- Matthew B., Mechanicsburg, Pa.
It's a good question, Matthew. And particularly with Clement -- I'd say a lesser degree with Morton -- you are seeing a possible conundrum developing. There's no question that the Pirates like Clement's potential, and I don't think anyone has any issue with that. Here's a left-handed hitter, with power, who has had periods of offensive success in the Minors.
But at what point is potential not enough? In other words, is there a time when trying to give a guy a chance to figure things out and establish himself at the Major League level hurts a team's ability to win in the present? I believe there is.
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From all that management said leading up to this season, there was a "win now" expectation laid out for this team. A first baseman with a .176 average and just five RBIs who is playing at a position that is expected to produce on the offensive end is not helping that "win now" goal. If the Pirates are conceding that 2010 isn't the year -- which I've never heard publically -- then sure, let Clement see if he can build his way toward being a serviceable Major Leaguer. But if you want to put the best players you have on the field right now, you have to question his inclusion.
The Pirates do have other options, too, so this isn't a situation where Clement is the best and/or only player available. Steve Pearce, given what he did in Triple-A in April, deserves a chance. Ryan Church has the ability to play every day. And Jose Tabata certainly seems close, given his success in Triple-A.
I left Morton out of this mostly because, unlike Clement, he has shown an ability to have some Major League success. He was a pretty good piece in the rotation last year, and he's had some decent stretches (inning-to-inning, not game-to-game yet) that are encouraging.
Fans are not blind to the fact that the Bucs' pitching has been their Achilles' heel this season. Is the performance of the starting rotation more of a reflection of the talent the Pirates have or of a staff whose responsibility it is to develop the talent?
-- Tom F., Jupiter, Fla.
The performance of the starting rotation -- particularly in April -- can be attributed to a variety of factors. Obviously, no one could have foreseen Ross Ohlendorf's injury, and there is no question that his absence hurt the club tremendously in April. Instead of just trying to piece together the fifth spot in the rotation, all of a sudden two-fifths of the rotation was in flux. Brian Burres and Jeff Karstens ultimately helped to settle things down, but it took some time.
Was the problem talent? General manager Neal Huntington did say a few weeks back that the depth of the starting pitching wasn't what he expected. That's not to say Huntington doesn't believe the talent isn't there. It is to say that the talent isn't producing good enough results.
With all four of the rotation's mainstays, we've all seen the talent play out very well at times -- Morton, included. The problem continues to be consistency, though. The Pirates don't have a starter with a years-long track record of consistent success, someone you can rely on every time to give the team a very good chance to win.
Zach Duke had a strong 2009 season, but that was his first really good season since 2005. Paul Maholm was the team's best in 2008, but he couldn't completely repeat his success in '09. Morton and Ohlendorf had decent stretches late last season. But a three-month sample size is really small in the grand scheme of things. Essentially, the Pirates went into the season hopeful that all four of these pitchers would reach their potential at the same time. That's a huge risk, and it has hurt the club.
What do you think the plans are for the Pirates' closer position moving forward? Do you think they might trade Octavio Dotel and move Evan Meek into the closer's role, or will they stick with Dotel for a while?
-- Derek S., Bradford, Pa.
Dotel seems to have gotten himself back on track, so I wouldn't expect to see a change anytime soon. Come the end of July, if the Pirates are out of contention and a team comes calling about Dotel, sure, they will listen. But keep in mind that his salary for this season ($3.5 million) is very reasonable, and the Pirates have a $4.5 million option to retain his services for next year. So, from a financial standpoint, there's not an urgency to trade him.
That said, looking at Meek, it is hard not to envision him as this team's long-term closer. He had no problem collecting his first save in Los Angeles a few weeks back, and he has both the power stuff and mentality to thrive in that role. He -- or Joel Hanrahan, for that matter -- is an intriguing future option for sure. And, no, it wouldn't surprise me if that future begins next season.
What are the Bucs' Draft plans, if not Bryce Harper?
-- Wes B., St. Marys, Pa.
The Pirates are intently scouting Harper, but it's looking likely that Washington will take him with the No. 1 pick. And even if the Nationals don't, that doesn't mean the Bucs see him as the best available talent. I'll give you three names to keep an eye on as June 7 approaches -- high school pitcher Jameson Taillon, high school shortstop Manny Machado and college pitcher Drew Pomeranz. The Pirates haven't narrowed down their list to just this trio, but all three are intriguing and expected top picks, and they have scouted each extensively.
The consensus is that this Draft class doesn't have a Stephen Strasburg or Dustin Ackley in it. In fact, Huntington said there might not be anyone as talented as Alvarez and a number of the top college players drafted in '08. The high school pitching pool is deep, though those are also the most risky picks to make.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.