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Starkey: For Pirates, Pedro Alvarez just can't whiff

| Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012

I am projecting the Pirates' batting order, and while it won't remind anyone of, say, Philly's, I am intrigued by the first three names.

I see on-base potential and speed up top, followed by a possible perennial All-Star in the three-hole:

• Tabata

• Presley

• McCutchen

I reflexively pencil in Pedro Alvarez as the clean-up hitter but quickly shake my head and erase the name.

I put Neil Walker in that spot. Doesn't feel right. Garrett Jones• Casey McGehee• Nope. So I go back to Alvarez.

I rinse and repeat five times, hoping that maybe Alvarez's name will repel my eraser and stay put. It does not.

I imagine Pirates manager Clint Hurdle and GM Neal Huntington putting themselves through the same exercise.

And I am positive of this much: The Pirates desperately need Alvarez to be a middle-of-the-order presence — a big bat in a suddenly power-sapped National League Central.

He doesn't have to hit clean-up. Not now, anyway.

But he needs to hit.

Alvarez is by far the club's biggest spring-training storyline. He is the swing player. If he taps back into his massive potential, the whole dynamic changes.

If he flops again, the dynamic pretty much stays the same for a team that had the second-worst slugging percentage and third-fewest home runs in the National League.

The only thing we know for sure is that Alvarez has improved his physical condition.

"He looks good," Huntington said Friday. "He's never going to model a swimsuit, but he looks strong, looks to be in good shape."

That's nice to hear, but frankly I wouldn't care if Alvarez reported at Casey Hampton weight (and failed the run test). I just want to see him hit. Does anyone quibble with Prince Fielder's weight?

I broached the batting-order possibilities with Huntington. He anticipates starting the season with some combination of Walker, Jones and McGehee in the four-hole.

The Pirates hope those guys are keeping the spot warm for Pedro.

"I know in conversations with Clint, if Pedro reaches his potential, that's where he eventually gets to, whether it's this year or next year," Huntington said. "But I would not envision four-hole out of spring training. No, I would think Pedro would be down further to take some pressure off."

Yet it seems like the pressure's always on, doesn't it• This saga began in June 2008, when the Pirates drafted Alvarez second overall and thought they'd signed him for $6 million. Then came a dispute, a reworked deal worth $6.4 million and a lost summer of baseball for Alvarez.

After a year of seasoning, Alvarez tantalized Pirates fans by smacking 16 home runs in just 95 games in 2010.

Anything seemed possible last season, except the possibility that Cliff Lee would out-hit Alvarez. Which is exactly what happened. The Phillies' ace pitcher batted .200 with four extra-base hits in 75 at-bats. Alvarez hit .191 with 14 extra-base hits in 235 at-bats.

This was no sophomore jinx. It was sophomore stinks . The numbers were horrifying. Against lefties, Alvarez hit .158 with one home run and 20 strikeouts in 38 at-bats. His plate appearances were often shorter than a Kardashian wedding.

"He dug himself a hole he couldn't get out of," Huntington said.

The collapse was so alarming that the Pirates went out and bought a $2.5 million insurance policy in McGehee.

Question is, did Alvarez improve his pitch recognition and overall game by not playing baseball• He declined the Pirates' request to play winter ball, opting to clear his mind and sculpt his body at agent Scott Boras' California workout facility.

Hurdle sees some positives in that decision. He also liked the Alvarez who showed up last month at minicamp.

"Pedro's taken some ownership of his situation, and he needed to," Hurdle said in a radio interview. "He's tighter, he's firmer — and he was smiling and laughing. You didn't see a lot of that out of Pedro last year, rightfully so. But he's in a good place."

We'll see.

While the third-base job is Alvarez's to lose, he is not even guaranteed to open the season in the majors.

"Very few guys are," Huntington said. "They have to show us they're capable of handling the major league workload."

The Pirates cannot afford a swing-and-miss here. Several players drafted behind Alvarez are putting up better major league power numbers.

Fans want more.

The Pirates want more.

Alvarez wants more.

It may not be time to clean up. But it is time to deliver.

Additional Information:

Falling behind

Career home runs for 2008 first-round picks:

Gordon Beckham (drafted by White Sox, 8th overall): 33

Justin Smoak (Rangers, 11th): 28

Ike Davis (Mets, 18th): 26

Buster Posey (Giants, 5th): 22

Pedro Alvarez (Pirates, 2nd): 20

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