|Born: February 6, 1987
Height: 6′ 3″
Drafted: 1st Round, 2nd Overall, 2008
How Acquired: Draft
Agent: Scott Boras
WTM’S PIRATE PLAYER PROFILES
|The Pirates garnered significant publicity by drafting Alvarez and then, seemingly, signing him for a $6M bonus. Alvarez was considered by many the top talent in the 2008 draft class from the day he set foot on the Vanderbilt campus. As the numbers show, he was a prolific power hitter his first two years in college. He also performed very well in wood bat tournaments. The Pirates, however, had increasingly alienated their fans by their refusal to pursue expensive players in the draft. The fans’ distrust of the team’s willingness to try to improve reached a high point with its decision to draft a reliever, Dan Moskos, with the fourth pick in the 2007 draft in a move obviously based on cheapness. With Alvarez being a client of Scott Boras, fans remained suspicious that the team would draft, and then sign, him.
The Pirates addressed the doubts by selecting Alvarez and reaching agreement with him sometime around the midnight deadline on a bonus of $6M. Alvarez, however, then refused to sign the deal, as Boras claimed that the agreement had occurred after midnight. The result was a grievance filed by the union against MLB that was ultimately settled when the Pirates and Alvarez agreed to a four-year major league contract worth a guaranteed $6.355M.
As far as on-field ability is concerned, the principal question mark about Alvarez was his defense. He has a strong arm, but his size has always been considered an impediment at third. Some scouts considered him athletic enough to make sufficient progress to stay there as an average fielder. Others, not including the Pirates or Alvarez himself, thought he’d have to move to first. Another question arose, however, when he was hit by a pitch early in the 2008 season and broke the hamate bone in his right hand. Various sources indicated that an injury of that sort may detract from a hitter’s power for a year or so, but should eventually cause no loss of ability. Alvarez hit well after his return from the injury, just not quite as well as expected from the top talent in the draft.
The Pirates initially hoped to sign Alvarez quickly so he could play for two months in the minors, but Boras followed his standard practice of refusing to negotiate until shortly before the August 15 midnight deadline. The result was a dispute that drew considerable attention until the settlement occurred.* Alvarez will receive a little more guaranteed money than the bonus he originally agreed to, but the deal could end up netting him somewhat more if he manages to reach the majors quickly and stay there. From the Pirates’ standpoint, the money will be spread out over more time than a minor league deal. There’s a provision for a fifth year in which the Pirates will pay Alvarez $1.63M, but he will have the ability to void it and go to arbitration if he’s eligible.
Even after all the legal craziness got resolved, controversy seemed to follow Alvarez, although he created some of it himself. He showed up to minicamp overweight, as it became apparent that Boras had not been truthful during the negotiations when he told the Pirates Alvarez was working out regularly. In fact, Alvarez had been unable to work out sufficiently due to tendonitis in his knees, which was concerning in and of itself for such a young guy. He came to spring training in much better shape, but the urban legend of him being lazy and perpetually out of shape has become received wisdom among angry, conspiracy-minded Pirate fans despite the absence of any support for it. In fact, Alvarez went through a grueling conditioning program prior to spring training in 2010. Rumors of him being out of shape surfaced again in spring 2011, and some fans continue to cling to the myth even though it turned out the writer who started the rumor wasn’t even at the training camp. Other writers who were there refuted the story.
Got off to slow start with Lynchburg. He showed huge power as expected, but fanned a great deal, couldn’t hit LHPs, and spent much of his time in slumps. He did have a flair for the dramatic, with a number of key, late inning HRs, but that can be misleading. In class A, the good pitchers are almost all in the rotations, so Alvarez was probably taking advantage of weaker pitchers. His struggles probably resulted partly from impatience, as pitchers simply weren’t throwing him many strikes. Once he started to hit better, the Pirates quickly promoted him to Altoona. After a much briefer slow start, he began hammering the ball. He posted an OPS of .977 in July and 1.136 in August, even hitting LHPs better, with a line of 324/360/451 against them. His defense remained a concern, as he committed 25 errors on the season.
Opening in AAA, Alvarez had a slow April, then got hot in May and stayed that way. Most importantly, he posted a 1.070 OPS against LHPs, even better than his .837 OPS against RHPs. In mid-June, the long-awaited promotion to Pittsburgh came. His rookie season had a lot of ups and downs. Predictably, he started slowly and was prone to slumps. He didn’t hit LHPs much, with a .644 OPS compared to .858 against RHPs. His K rate of one every three ABs is definitely a concern, although Ryan Howard drives in 140 runs a year striking out that much. Alvarez had some dramatic moments, such as back-to-back two-HR games, and a two-out, walkoff HR that won a see-saw game with Colorado and provided the team’s top season highlight. He also was in the top ten in MLB in RBIs after the All-Star break. Although September stats always require skepticism, Alvarez had a big month, posting a .937 OPS, driving in 27 runs in 29 games, and cutting his K rate to one every four ABs. He seemed to take time to adjust to patterns that opposing teams used in pitching him. At first, he saw an endless series of breaking balls away. As he became conscious of that, pitchers started catching him looking at fastballs inside. He also tended to fall behind by taking too many pitches early in counts. Alvarez struggled defensively, committing 17 errors and posting a fielding percentage of .938, which isn’t good. UZR and plus/minus both rated him well below average. He doesn’t have good range and sometimes didn’t react well to balls hit hard just to one side or the other. Given his size, he could get off-balance throwing when in motion, leading to wild throws. At other times, he showed good hands and reactions, and was able to make diving plays on both grounders and line drives.
Expected to anchor the lineup in the cleanup spot, Alvarez had a disastrous season. He struggled mightily from the beginning of spring training until the end of September. He also spent a good deal of the season either on the disabled list or in the minors. He went on the DL in late May with a quad injury. Once he returned, he worked his way up to AAA on rehab assignments and hit very well there, but the Pirates wanted him to stay in the minors to get his swing straightened out so they optioned him to AAA once his rehab was up. They brought him back shortly after that, though, due to injuries. He continued to struggle in the majors, got sent back to Indianapolis, and this time struggled there, too. He returned to Pittsburgh once the AAA season was over, but he shared third base with Josh Harrison and occasionally Brandon Wood, and did not start against LHPs. His hitting did not improve. He had only 19 RBIs for the Pirates. The crux of the problem was an uncanny ability to get into 0-2 counts, partly due to an unwillingness to swing at pitches over the outer half of the plate. Pitchers routinely threw the first pitch there to get ahead. He ended up in 0-2 counts in a quarter of his plate appearances. The NL average is 19%. Once in an 0-2 count, Alvarez was helpless, hitting 077/091/077. The NL average is 162/190/241. Obviously, Alvarez swung and missed at an extremely large number of pitches, often ones that seemed very hittable. Defensively, according to most measures Alvarez improved to where he’s below average, but not dramatically so.
Alvarez continued to struggle in spring training, leading to calls from the fans for the Pirates to send him to AAA. Instead, the team put him back at third. Their faith wasn’t unequivocal, though, as Clint Hurdle semi-platooned Alvarez in April and sat him out against LHPs from time to time all year. Alvarez struggled much of the time early in the season and after play on June 15 had an OPS of just .623. On June 16-17, though, he had back-to-back two-HR games, which started a long, mostly productive stretch. He hit well most of the time through August before slumping in September. Obviously, he continued to strike out a lot; that problem is never going to go away. He mostly struggled against LHPs, too, with an OPS of just .648, compared to .833 against RHPs. Defensively, most observers seemed to think Alvarez had improved. According to UZR, he really didn’t and remained solidly below average. According to +/-, he did improve and was just slightly below average. His reactions seemed to improve and he made a lot of good stops on hard-hit balls. He led all third basemen in errors with 27, eight more than anybody else. Most of them were throwing errors, which hadn’t been a problem in the past as he has a good arm. On the whole, he played well enough that there’s no pressing need for the Pirates to move him to first.
Alvarez had a largely similar season to 2012. He continued to swing and miss at a prodigious rate, leading the NL in strikeouts. He struggled badly early in the season, posting a .560 OPS in April. He was close to helpless against LHPs, posting a .537 OPS against them. His OPS against RHPs was .842. On the plus side, he tied for the NL lead in HRs; drove in 100 runs; and was the team’s best hitter in the playoff series against St. Louis, going 6-17 with three HRs. He hit much better on the road (.838 OPS to .695), although that hasn’t been the case in the past. A myth had grown up that Alvarez can only hit in day games, but he put that to rest by hitting better at night. Another positive development was his defense, as the metrics show him to be an average or better defender. He has good initial reactions, which translates to good range at third, to go with good hands and a very strong arm. He’s even good at coming in and barehanding slowly hit balls. The main drawback with his defense is that he’s still error-prone; he committed 27, leading the majors at third by six.
Alvarez will be 27 throughout the 2014 season. It’s becoming increasingly likely that he’s not going to be more than he is now, an inconsistent, low-contact hitter with huge power who needs to hit 5th or 6th instead of cleanup. He sees very few pitches in the strike zone — fewer than 40% — so it’s possible he could still make some adjustments, especially considering that his walk total is low for a guy with his power. It might be easier for him to take more pitches if the Pirates had somebody else they could count on to drive in runs behind Andrew McCutchen. It’s possible the Pirates will approach Alvarez about a contract extension during the off-season. In any event, he’s eligible for arbitration and so will get his first significant salary.
*The blogosphere produced a comical explosion of conspiracy and apocalypse theories duing the pendency of the grievance. Alvarez was going to become a free agent, Boras was going to invalidate the draft, the Pirates were going to be found liable for zillions in damages, you name it. Even generally responsible outlets like Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America railed against MLB and the Pirates, and depicted an overwhelming union case that would blow MLB and the Pirates to smithereens. In actuality, the grievance was filed not by Boras but by the union, which was suing to uphold the signing deadline. That was hardly a way to go about invalidating the draft. Furthermore, in the end both MLB and the union pressured the Pirates and Boras, respectively, to settle their differences, with the end result being a contract that wasn’t dramatically more lucrative for Alvarez than the original deal. For its part, MLB’s concessions to the union amounted to nothing more than a promise to be more careful next time about the midnight deadline. The MLBPA, which has a long history of trouncing MLB in legal proceedings, would hardly have settled for such limited gains if its case had been so overwhelming. The more likely scenario was indicated by the news after the settlement, reported by Kevin Goldstein of BP, that Royals’ top pick Eric Hosmer, another Boras client, had also agreed to a deal after the deadline, as the Pirates had alleged. The union was probably concerned about the arbitrator reaching the obvious conclusion that Boras, and hence the union, was insisting on adherence to the deadline only when it suited his purposes, since Hosmer was happy with his deal. Such hypocrisy would have undermined the union’s claim that the Pirates and MLB were taking advantage of Alvarez by going past the deadline, when Boras was happy to go past the deadline for a deal he liked more. Boras was also widely rumored to have gotten a post-midnight deal for Julio Borbon the previous year. He was obviously quite familiar with MLB’s tendency to stretch the deadline, probably more so than the Pirates themselves. The claim made by both BP and BA that the Pirates had “taken advantage” of Alvarez, as if he was proceeding without representation, was ludicrous. In fact, you’d think Boras himself would have found the notion insulting.
|2014: $700,000 club option
2013: $700,000 (club option exercised)
2010: $500,000 in majors, $88,750 in minors
2009: $400,000 in majors, $88,750 in minors
|Signing Bonus: $6,000,000 paid over 4 years
MiLB Debut: 2009
MLB Debut: 6/16/2010
MLB FA Eligible: 2017
Added to 40-Man: 9/24/2008
Options Remaining: 1 (USED: 2009, 2010, 2011)
MLB Service Time: 3.085
|June 5, 2008: Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1st round, 2nd overall pick; signed on August 15 (deal was disputed).
September 24, 2008: Signed re-worked Major League contract.