This article is part of our John Sickels' Column series.
The Pittsburgh Pirates under GM Neal Huntington and club president Frank Coonelly are spending big in the draft now; there will be no more Matt Wieters/Daniel Moskos debacles. The first great test of this new philosophy came in 2008, when they drafted Pedro Alvarez out of Vanderbilt in the first round, second overall. Let's take a look at how this investment is doing so far.
Alvarez was a high school player in the Bronx, well-known to scouts. Drafted in the 14th round by the Red Sox in 2005, he would have gone as high as the supplemental or second round if he'd been considered signable away from Vanderbilt. Indeed, the Red Sox offered him supplemental-round money to sign, but he turned them down. Excellent freshman and sophomore seasons drove him to the top of the 2008 class. His junior year for the Commodores was actually rather mediocre, due to a broken hamate bone that cost him a month of playing time and hampered his swing when he did play. Nevertheless, most scouts were convinced he was the best college hitter available last year. It costs the Pirates $6.355 million and some Scott Boras negotiating headaches to sign Alvarez, but he did sign, albeit too late to play last summer. Alvarez made his pro debut this spring for Lynchburg in the Carolina League. Despite so-so performance, he was promoted to Double-A at mid-season and has been more successful at that level.
TRADITIONAL SCOUTING REPORT
Alvarez is 6-3, 235 pounds, a right-handed thrower and a left-handed hitter, born February 6th, 1987. Physically, he has two plus tools: a strong throwing arm and enormous raw power. His running speed is mediocre, but his overall athleticism is good for a player his size. His body tends to pick up weight easily, and he'll have to work hard to stay in shape. He has good hands, but his range may decline with age, and not everyone believes he'll be able to handle third base in the long run, many scouts projecting a move to first base or left field. The bat should play at any corner position. Alvarez is very strong physically and his swing translates this strength to field power effectively. He can get too pull-conscious at times, but when things are going well he will drive pitches to the opposite field readily. The hamate injury cut into his power production during his junior year, and could have influenced his performance early this season as well; those types of injuries can have an impact up to a year later. Alvarez is patient and controls the strike zone well, willing and able to draw walks, though he'll also strike out a lot. Despite the occasional weight issue and the acrimonious contract negotiations, scouts have always liked his work ethic on the field and leadership skills in the clubhouse.
Alvarez got off to a slow start at Class A Lynchburg in the Carolina League this year, hitting just .219/.341/.397 in April. He began to heat up in May and June, hitting .270/.351/.520 and .254/.333/.552. . .not a lot in the batting average department, but with better power production certainly and a reasonable on-base percentage. The Pirates promoted him to Double-A Altoona in late June, an aggressive move perhaps, but one that has worked out well. He started off just 3-for-25 (.120) there, but something clicked and he's been on fire for two months, hitting .355/.435/.581 since July 1st. His batting average on balls in play during this period is a robust and unsustainable .438, but even applying a "luck" adjustment to his overall Double-A line still gives him something like a .290/.380/.520 mark, very credible for a player in his first full season in Double-A. Alvarez's strikeout rate is high at one per game, but his walk rate is solid and the fact that he's maintained his power while moving up a level is a good sign. He's been particularly deadly against right-handed pitching, hitting .333/.432/.644 against them. Against lefties the numbers are less impressive, still hitting .306 against southpaws but with a .371 SLG and much worse plate discipline. Improving his production against left-handers will be a task going forward. His defense also needs a lot of work: he's fielding just .906 at Altoona, and scouts are concerned about his range. Pirates officials aren't giving up on him at the hot corner just yet, but most observers from other organizations believe he'll have to switch eventually.
FANTASY INVESTMENT VALUE
Alvarez's ceiling as a 30+ homer hitter with a high OBP is very impressive, though he'll need to show he can handle lefties to fully reach his potential. If he can remain at third base, he'll have more value than if he has to move to one of the other corners. His performance in Double-A has been quite good, and as a result there's still a chance he can open 2010 in Pittsburgh. If he ends up back in the minors to begin '10, he should still get a shot in the second half and certainly by 2011.
Despite some questions, Alvarez clearly projects as a major league regular and still has the potential to become a star or even a superstar.
Article first appeared 8/28/09