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Alvarez could Pirates' be long-term solution at third

Kevin Gorman
| Monday, April 4, 2011

CHICAGO -- If anyone is prepared to pronounce the potential of Pedro Alvarez as a cornerstone third baseman for the Pirates, it's the player once believed to be their savior at the same position.

Aramis Ramirez was considered the future of the franchise before the Pirates traded him to the Chicago Cubs in 2003, a salary dump that started an unsuccessful search for his successor.

That cast includes Jose Hernandez, Jose Bautista, Chris Stynes, Ty Wigginton, Joe Randa and Andy LaRoche. Freddy Sanchez won the 2006 National League batting crown at third, but his stay was short-lived as he soon switched to second base.

Ramirez, a two-time All-Star who has hit 25 or more home runs six times and had 100 or more RBI four times since joining the Cubs, believes the Pirates' search should finally end with Alvarez.

"Pedro, he's got all the talent in the world," Ramirez said of his fellow native of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. "I watched him play last year, and he did well for the time he was up here. He's still got a lot to learn, but he's a young guy and he's got what it takes to be a successful major league player. He's just got to concentrate, put it together and let your ability take over. He's got the abilities. That's why he's up here."

While the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Alvarez presents a formidable, left-handed power bat in the middle of the lineup -- he had 16 home runs and 64 RBI in 95 games last season -- there is still some debate, internally and externally, about whether he will stop the Pirates' revolving door at third base.

Not that Alvarez has any doubt.

"I plan on playing third base for the rest of my career," said Alvarez, who received a $6.4 million signing bonus from the Pirates after they selected him second overall in the 2008 draft. "That's where I want to play, and that's what I want to work on, to keep improving at that position."

The first left-handed hitting third baseman to start Opening Day for the Pirates since Richie Hebner in 1976, Alvarez has shown signs of adjusting to the perils of the hot corner after initially struggling. While Pirates coaches praise his improvement, management considers it necessary for him to stay at his preferred position in the infield instead of moving to first.

"As we sit here today, we have a guy who has the physical ability to play the position for a long time," said general manager Neal Huntington, noting Alvarez's requisite glove, footwork and arm strength and versatility. "His body composition becomes his enemy at times, and he's worked awfully hard this offseason to get in better condition. He's stronger than he's ever been. It would be nice. That bat at third base is tremendous value for the organization, but he's got to play enough defense to help the club and not hurt it."

Alvarez has extra incentive, considering the Pirates own the No. 1 overall selection in June's draft, and Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon is considered the top prospect.

Alvarez's defense got off to a shaky start Friday. On a muddy Wrigley Field, he mishandled a sharp grounder, allowed a pair of popups to drop in the infield and had a throwing error. Yet Pirates manager Clint Hurdle commended Alvarez for making two "very good" plays to his left on Saturday. Yesterday, Alvarez charged hard and scooped a sacrifice bunt bare-handed, then threw Carlos Pena out at first.

Pirates infield coach Nick Leyva is impressed not only with Alvarez's work ethic, but how he retains and applies advice. They have worked on his "ready" position at third, on keeping his feet planted shoulders-width apart and not pointing his toes inward, and finding a comfortable stance. Leyva credits Alvarez for working hard to improve his range this spring.

"He's going to be fine. He's a very talented individual," Leyva said. "He's worked hard. He just needs to play. He doesn't have a whole lot of experience, even in professional baseball when you think about it. To do it at this level, you have to be special. And he's pretty special."

As dangerous as Alvarez is at the plate, he also has a reputation for being a slow starter.

He hit .250 with seven doubles, one triple, two home runs and 11 RBI in 23 spring training games, but was 4 for 13 with four RBI in the first three games against the Cubs.

Hurdle doesn't think the defensive focus will hurt Alvarez offensively.

"I've seen no signs of him taking his bat out to his position, or bringing his glove into the dugout," Hurdle said before Sunday's game. "It's not going to be acceptable here. We've talked about it early. You play defense when it's time to play defense, and when you come to the dugout it's time to hit."

Alvarez responded by rapping singles in his first two plate appearances, scoring the first run on Ronny Cedeno's single in the second and driving in Jose Tabata with a liner to center in the third to give the Pirates a 2-0 lead. He moved runners to second and third with a flyout to right in the fifth, and drove in the winning runs with a two-run infield single in the ninth, as the Pirates won, 5-4.

"I hold myself to the highest standard, so I'm always looking to do the best that I can," Alvarez said. "Anything outside of my expectations falls short to my expectations. I feel comfortable, pretty good at the plate and on defense.

"Time will tell."

Neil Walker, once considered a candidate to replace Ramirez at third before switching to second base, believes Alvarez has the ability to make Pirates fans forget about everyone who preceded him at the position.

"Watching Pedro play, I think years from now Aramis is going to be a long-lost memory," Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said. "He does everything. He works incredibly hard to get himself better at third base. He's as focused as any person we have on this ballclub, as any person I've played with. And he's young. He can hit, he can play defense and he's going to continue to get better, especially from the mental standpoint. I have no doubts about it. He's not going to stop trying to continue to improve until he's the best player in the game."

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