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In Triple-A, Pedro Alvarez prepares for the Pirates' call

| Sunday, May 23, 2010

TOLEDO, Ohio -- Several hours before the Pirates' Indianapolis farm club played a Triple-A game here last weekend, a visitor entered the clubhouse and looked around. He said nothing, but the notebook and wardrobe screamed "reporter" -- and his intent was just as obvious.

"Pedro!" boomed a voice from one of the locker stalls.

Pedro Alvarez, seated on a couch in the next room with teammate Jose Tabata, failed to hear the page, but he was quickly identified. When the media show up, everyone knows the target.

Right now for Alvarez, it's places like Toledo and Scranton and Pawtucket. Bright lights and big cities await.

He is a 6-foot-3, 225-pound, power-hitting third baseman, a former No. 2 pick overall with a swing and contract equally as sweet.

But Alvarez represents something more. A generation of Pirates fans has come of age with no recollection of winning, 17 straight losing seasons and counting. Alvarez, the Dominican-born son of a New York cab driver, stands for hope and promise, the dawn of a new era, an end to the futility.

That's the idea, anyway.

Alvarez is the whole package, brightly wrapped in potential, a dirty word in sports with too many unpleasant usages: untapped potential, unfulfilled potential, etc. But so far, potential is all we have. A hot prospect is still but a prospect.

The ex-Vanderbilt star is 23, not yet halfway through his second season of professional baseball. He never has worn a Pirates uniform except in spring training. He has stepped inside PNC Park once, a quick tour when he signed his $6.3 million contract in 2008 after a long delay orchestrated by his agent.

The fans were upset, but that was then. Now they can't wait for his arrival. The buzz had early June as the target date, and it's almost June. But general manager Neal Huntington and others are giving the word "patience" a workout. Alvarez might have to take a number behind pitcher Brad Lincoln and outfielder Tabata, who are more experienced and currently more consistent. Second baseman Neil Walker might join the big club sooner, pending Aki Iwamura's sore hamstring.

And when Alvarez does come up, where will he play• Do the Pirates immediately plug him in at third base, currently occupied by veteran Andy LaRoche• Does LaRoche go to second, where he has played all of three big-league games, or the bench• Does Alvarez move to first, where he has never played?

He seems to have the answers to all those questions.

"(Third base is) the position I play, and I plan on playing that position for the rest of my career," Alvarez said. "I've done many things this organization has wanted me to do, and I'm willing to do whatever I need to play at the next level. All I can say is, I put in a 100 percent effort to better myself at third base, and all I ask for is that opportunity."

Indianapolis manager Frank Kremblas said: "He has not done anything except play third base. And I have not been told anything other than that. My job is to get him ready to play third base."

That, apparently, is that.

Wherever he plays, Alvarez still has work to do. Defensively, that means "learning how to play every day and focus on every pitch," Kremblas said. At the plate, despite impressive home run and RBI numbers, Alvarez strikes out a lot and has trouble with left-handers.

"He's going through a learning curve," Indy hitting coach Jeff Branson said. "Can he go up there and survive in the big leagues right now offensively• Absolutely, without a doubt. Is he gonna go up there and tear it up• No. If you could take him up there right now, then he would survive. That's not what we're trying to get him to do. We're trying to get him to be an impact player for us, in Pittsburgh. We still have a ways to go for him to be an impact player. That's the learning curve."

Added Kremblas: "Pedro's making progress. He's learning how he's gonna get pitched in certain situations. It's gaining experience more than anything. He's figuring out what his approach should be, against who. He's learning and doing a good job of making adjustments."

Against the Mud Hens and one of those pesky left-handers, Alvarez struck out looking and hit a weak fly ball in his first two at-bats. His third time up, he fell behind, 0-2. Then he rocketed a fastball off the wall in center, a 402-foot triple that just missed going out.

"You want to (adjust) pitch to pitch as opposed to at-bat to at-bat," he said afterward. "But you've got to start somewhere, and I think I'm making progress."

He has been streaky. Named the Pirates' top minor leaguer in 2009, Alvarez dealt with tendinitis and weight issues before starting in Triple-A with three homers and seven RBI in his first three games. Then he tailed off, got hot and tailed off again. The Pirates are watching closely but say they are not concerned.

"You can get caught up in short-term performance, and we try not to do that," said Kyle Stark, the team's director of player development.

Among the many things the club likes is Alvarez's run-producing efficiency. Through Friday's game, he had a high number of RBI (37) on relatively few hits (38 in 155 at-bats for a .245 average). Seven of his nine homers had come with men on base.

"There are some guys that drive runs in, and you can't teach that," Kremblas said.

It also helps that his teammates, especially Tabata, are running more and annoying opposing pitchers.

"I think teams have paid a lot of attention to us with runners on," Alvarez said. "There might be a split-second lack of concentration by the pitcher. It works to my advantage."

But learning to hit consistently is an "endless cycle," he said. "You start hitting fastballs, and here comes the off-speed. You struggle with that, then you start hitting the off-speed, then here comes the fastball again. It's a matter of how quickly you can make the adjustments."

Some come more quickly than others.

"It's a matter of comfort as he goes along," Stark said. "As he sees left-handers more, as a good hitter, he makes adjustments."

Added Branson: "We're only talking about a second full year of pro ball. So he still has a ways to go. But he learns every night. We put a plan together for him every night. And, for the most part, he goes out and executes his plan. Now, is he gonna execute it every night• No. I mean, nobody does.

"If we were that consistent, then we wouldn't be here."

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