The third base position in 2010 belonged to Pedro Alvarez. Even though Alvarez started the season in AAA, it was a near lock that he was the future of the position, with the only thing stopping him being a potential Andy LaRoche breakout. LaRoche had a decent season in 2009, with a .258/.330/.401 line, and strong defense at third base according to UZR. He also came on strong with the bat at the end of the season, leaving hope that he could carry that success over to the 2010 season.
LaRoche started the 2010 season strong, with a .333/.415/.456 line in 57 at-bats during the month of April. However, LaRoche tanked during May and the first half of June, with a .183/.234/.250 line in 120 at-bats over that time span. What was worse was that his defense, which was his best asset in 2009, also took a major hit, giving him absolutely no value to the Pirates. The Pirates called up Alvarez on June 16th, and the position became his for the remainder of the year.
When Alvarez first arrived, I joked about the lofty expectations placed on him. The joke had some far fetched predictions (“800 home runs”, “Skipped free agency as a Scott Boras client”, “Cured Cancer”), but they weren’t too far off the actual expectations on Alvarez. In his rookie year, Alvarez hit for a .256/.326/.461 line, with 16 homers in 347 at-bats. That’s a 27-28 home run pace over the course of a full season, and that’s just based on the rookie numbers of a 23 year old.
Alvarez had some ups and downs this season. He started off with a poor month of June, hitting for a .152/.216/.196 line and no homers in 46 at-bats. He started heating up in July, with a .255/.333/.521 line and seven homers in 94 at-bats. The power disappeared in August, with a .250/.339/.396 line and three homers in 96 at-bats. His best span was in September/October, where he hit for a .306/.355/.577 line with six homers in 111 at-bats.
His overall season numbers look decent for a rookie, but it’s important to note that most of his production came after June. From July to the end of the season Alvarez combined for a .272/.343/.502 line, with all 16 of his homers in 301 at-bats. That’s a 32 home run pace over a full season. At each level he’s been at, Alvarez has struggled in his first month’s worth of at-bats before adjusting to the level. You could make a case that June was his adjustment period. Obviously he wasn’t fully adjusted, as he slumped with his power in August, but even those results weren’t horrible.
Pirates fans have dealt with their fair share of disappointment over the last 18 years, especially when it comes to top prospects. Mention a prospect having potential, and you’re likely to get a Chad Hermansen reference. Talk about how a player is rated in the top 10 of Baseball America’s top 100 prospects, and you might get a reference to how Kris Benson’s career turned out. Then there’s Aramis Ramirez, one of the few star players the Pirates have developed since Barry Bonds, and possibly the only one. The problem is that Ramirez didn’t realize his potential until after he was traded to the Chicago Cubs.
Alvarez is by far the best talent that Pittsburgh has seen since Bonds. That’s not to say that Alvarez will go on to be the home run champion one day, but it is saying that Alvarez is a guy who can anchor an offense. When I think of what Alvarez could turn in to, I think of two possibilities: Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard.
Dunn is a career .250/.381/.521 hitter, with a homer every 14.05 at-bats, which is a pace for 40+ homers a season. Howard is a career .279/.372/.572 hitter, with a homer every 12.79 at-bats, which is a 45+ homer per season pace. Anyone who has seen Alvarez knows that he has a lot of power. The ball explodes off his bat almost every time he makes contact. However, like Dunn and Howard, Alvarez has two things working against him: a high strikeout total, and limited defensive skills, which make him a first baseman in the long term.
The strikeouts aren’t a problem as long as Alvarez can hit for power. High strikeout totals tend to be the tradeoff for a big power hitter. In fact, at one point in their careers, Dunn and Howard each held the record for most strikeouts in a season, with Dunn holding the record from 2004-2007, and Howard taking over from 2007-2008. The record holder is now Mark Reynolds, another power bat. The positional issues are more of a team concern, as there’s no trouble moving Alvarez to first, as long as the Pirates can find a replacement at third.
Since he was drafted, Alvarez was looked to as the future of the organization. Pirates fans waited two whole years between the time Alvarez was drafted, and the time Alvarez arrived in the majors, and that’s not counting the time waiting on Alvarez prior to the 2008 draft. It’s no secret why some fans were impatient when Alvarez started off slow, or even why some have Alvarez written off as a bust because he didn’t light up the majors at the age of 23. Alvarez showed flashes of his potential this season, and as he matures and adjusts to the major league level, we should see those same results on a more consistent basis, which could allow him to be the Pirates’ version of Howard or Dunn.
Alvarez is the present owner of the third base position, and will probably hold down the role for at least another year or two, as there are no internal candidates to replace him. One idea that has floated around has been moving Neil Walker from second to third, Alvarez to first, and finding a replacement second baseman, which would be easier than finding a replacement third baseman. I’ll get in to that more tomorrow when I break down the second base position, but for now let’s just say that I think the move is short sighted, and could hurt Walker’s development at second in the long term.
The future of the third base position may end up being a guy who currently isn’t in the organization. That player is Anthony Rendon, the current third baseman at Rice University, and the consensus top prospect in the 2011 draft. The Pirates own the number one pick, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t select Rendon, who looks to be recovering well from the ankle injury he sustained over the summer.
It may seem far fetched to pencil Rendon in as the future third baseman, considering he isn’t in the organization, and hasn’t even played a professional game in the minors yet, but based on the hype, Rendon is the best choice for the position. He has drawn comparisons to Ryan Zimmerman and Evan Longoria, not just for his hitting abilities, but for his defensive skills which will allow him to stick at third base. If Rendon is drafted, and if he follows a similar path as Alvarez, he could be up by June 2013, giving the Pirates a very strong third baseman, and an even stronger middle of the order in Alvarez and Rendon.
As for the short term, I’d expect Alvarez to be at third until Rendon arrives. The Pirates don’t have many third base options in the upper levels, at least not to the point where they could bump Alvarez to first. Jeremy Farrell and Josh Harrison are the top third base prospects in the top three levels, but Harrison isn’t really a third baseman, projecting more as a utility player, while Farrell lacks the defensive skills to remain at third. The best internal option right now would be Eric Avila, but he has yet to play above rookie ball, so projecting him as a major league starter might be more of a long shot than projecting Rendon as the future of the position.
As for Andy LaRoche, I’m not totally writing him off, although I’m chalking up his chances of any future major league success to having Jose Bautista 2010 like odds. I’d keep LaRoche as a bench option in 2011, just to avoid a potential Bautista situation in the future. If by some rare chance he does finally put it all together, the Pirates will have him under control at least until Rendon arrives in the majors, although at this point I don’t expect anything more from LaRoche than the production of a decent infield bench player. In short, it looks like the short term future of the third base position is Alvarez, and hopefully the long term future will end up being Rendon.