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Kovacevic: Patience with Alvarez will pay off

| Monday, Aug. 15, 2011

MILWAUKEE — If anything torments a follower of the Pirates more than watching them fall apart at Miller Park for five years now, than watching the Brewers' 275-pound first baseman and a relief pitcher beat out infield singles, than watching the tying run stranded after a leadoff triple in the ninth, than watching an unassisted forceout at home plate in the 10th ... OK, well, maybe it doesn't get much worse.

In the summer-long category, though, I'll put watching Pedro Alvarez atop my torment list.

The Pirates' best power-hitting prospect in a decade has become utterly cringe-worthy, whether a pitch or a grounder is headed his way. His average is down to .197 after again going hitless in the Pirates' 2-1 loss Sunday, and his three home runs and 15 RBI seem frozen in time next to those 66-and-counting strikeouts.

Since returning to the Pirates on July 25, he is batting .176 and astoundingly has hit the ball out of the infield only 16 times in 72 plate appearances.

The kid looks terrible.

He is terrible right now.

But those pronouncing Alvarez a bust are ridiculously premature. He's played 150 games in the majors. Seriously, how about at least waiting until he has played a full season before burying him?

One look at that 275-pound first baseman for the Brewers illustrates the potential payoff: Prince Fielder is the heart-of-the-order force found in most contending lineups, owner of 27 home runs, 89 RBI and, just for kicks, a .305 average. He's the kind of thumper many still expect Alvarez to be.

Fielder's advice: Leave Pedro alone.

"What's probably the problem for him is that people are trying to classify him as a power hitter instead of him just being a hitter," Fielder told me this weekend. "You've got to learn how to hit first. Anytime you hear people telling that you're one thing, it puts a little pressure on you because you're trying to be that. Just think about hitting the ball hard. You can't put a GPS on the ball and make it go over the fence. Once he gets that down, he'll be fine."

He had better be. The painful fact for the Pirates is that Alvarez is just too important to the franchise, the only hitter with real power potential at any level of the organization.

Management made a mistake in recalling Alvarez from Triple-A Indianapolis last month, just as some of the latest instruction -- drive outside pitches the opposite way, be more aggressive early in counts -- was resonating. He was batting .365 in 18 games. But he also had dug himself into 0-2 counts in a third of his at-bats, and that should have been a glaring red flag.

This isn't hindsight on my part. I backed management when they kept him down despite fans' howls, and I panned management when, in a move highly unlike general manager Neal Huntington, he promoted a critical piece of the future because of a need with the parent club.

Huntington, to his credit, acknowledges the mistake.

"Some of this is on us," he said.

The Pirates' next move isn't easy. Hearing the brass assess him over the weekend -- "He looks a little like he's lost his way," Huntington said -- it sounds like Alvarez could be headed back to Indianapolis, maybe as early as today. Only 21 games remain on Indianapolis' schedule, but there's a risk he can beat himself down further by staying.

"Obviously, I'm not doing as well as I want," Alvarez said yesterday in an interview he clearly wanted to have about as much as a tooth extraction. "I'm just going to keep trying."

Trying at what?

"Just have good at-bats, whatever that takes."

And his confidence?

"You know, I have every bit of confidence that I'm going to get out of this. I've just to keep with my routine, learn from my coaches and teammates. I know for a fact that it'll turn around."

Call me nuts, but I believe him.

Alvarez hit well enough at Vanderbilt that he richly earned being the No. 2 pick in the 2008 draft. He started slowly at every level of the minors, then dominated every one of those levels. In the majors, too, let's not forget that in 2010 he had 16 home runs and 64 RBI in 95 games, had back-to-back two-homer games and was the National League's Rookie of the Month for September.

Baseball people will swear, no matter the contrary examples, that power hitters arrive late.

"There's some patience involved, some challenges," manager Clint Hurdle said. "If you believe in the player, if you believe in the person, you have to give him the opportunity to work through those."

"He's too good a hitter, and he cares too much," Huntington said. "We believe very strongly in Pedro Alvarez. He'll be fine."

Let's find out.

Additional Information:

Power in progress

Ten notable sluggers' first full seasons in the major leagues, the number of home runs they hit and their batting averages for the year:

Willie Stargell, Pirates, 1963: 11/.243

Reggie Jackson, A's, 1968: 29/.250

Mike Schmidt, Phillies, 1973: 18/.196

Barry Bonds, Pirates, 1986: 16/.223

Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners, 1989: 16/.264

Jim Thome, Indians, 1994: 20/.268

Albert Pujols, Cardinals, 2001: 37/.329

Adam Dunn, Reds, 2002: 26/.249

Ryan Howard, Phillies, 2005: 22/.288

Prince Fielder, Brewers, 2006: 28/.271

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