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Pirates need Alvarez to flourish in cleanup spot

| Wednesday, March 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez had his first 30-homer season in 2012.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Pirates manager Clint Hurdle used 134 different lineups last season, which meant anyone could wind up almost anywhere in the batting order on a given day.

Pedro Alvarez most often hit sixth (82 games), although he was also slotted as low as seventh (14 games) and as high as second (one game). He batted in the Nos. 4 and 5 spots in 24 games apiece.

Hitting 30 home runs last season established Alvarez as the team's top slugger — arguably the only bona fide threat in the lineup. Andrew McCutchen hit 31 homers, but he is more of a superb hitter with power than a true power hitter. Garrett Jones went deep 27 times, but he's a platoon player.

Hurdle is convinced that the Pirates won't blossom into more than just a .500-flirting team until Alvarez becomes the everyday cleanup hitter.

“We are going to be best served when he evolves and takes ownership of that spot,” Hurdle said. “It's something we've already talked about to see how it plays out in spring training. You'd like to find a guy you can put in that spot and leave him alone, and he's definitely a guy that we're considering.”

In three-quarters of the games he's started over the past three seasons, Alvarez has batted either fifth or sixth. He's hit more often in the 7-hole (40 games) than he has at cleanup (34 games).

“When you're a kid playing this game, the best player on the team is the cleanup hitter,” Alvarez said. “That position carries a lot of weight. But where you can get in trouble is acknowledging how much weight that position carries. When you put too much emphasis on it or worry too much about it, that's when guys tend to press and make it hard on themselves.”

That could explain why Alvarez has struggled at No. 4, where he has a .131 average and .444 OPS. Only two of his 50 career homers have been hit out of the fourth spot.

Alvarez has struck out in 38.1 percent of his plate appearances at cleanup compared to 29.7 percent when he's elsewhere in the lineup.

“Zone discipline is always going to be a challenge for a power hitter,” Hurdle said. “Those guys are high-risk, high-reward. You want him to be a run-producer, and there's going to be some strikeouts attached to it. You can live with those.”

Those whiffs are easier for a manager to swallow if the batter understands why they happened and starts to counterpunch. Alvarez batted .205 through the first two months of last season. After June 1, he batted .259 and clubbed 22 homers.

Alvarez has started using more of the field when he hits. From 2011 to 2012, the number of line drives he hit to the opposite field rose from 14 percent to 24 percent. He pulled 64 percent of his grounders toward right field, down from 69 percent the year before.

“He's learning,” Hurdle said. “He got through some great challenges last year.

“There were months when he was able to feel the impact he can have on a ballclub and a lineup. There were times he was able to carry us.”

So far this spring, Alvarez has shown mixed results at the plate. In 13 games, he's batting .161 — four of his five hits are doubles, but he hasn't yet homered.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com |or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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