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By Pittsburgh The Tribune-Review
Friday, Aug. 26, 2011
 

With a disappointing 2011 season winding down, Pedro Alvarez's next move could be spending the offseason working out his struggles in the Dominican Winter League.

An organization can't require a player to play winter ball, but manager Clint Hurdle said the Pirates will encourage Alvarez, who has hit .196 in 56 major league games this year, to do so.

Alvarez said he has not communicated with any winter league teams and is unsure of his offseason plans.

Alvarez was selected in the 2009 Winter League draft as a native player by the team Estrellas de Oriente, which controls his rights if he plays. He did not play in '09 or '10.

"We're trying to at least facilitate an opportunity for him to play this winter," Hurdle said.

Alvarez wouldn't be the first of his teammates to give winter ball a try, and if he saw improvement the next year, that also wouldn't be unprecedented. Charlie Morton and Neil Walker chose to play — Morton in the Dominican in 2010, Walker in Venezuela in 2009 —and gained from the experience.

After posting a 7.57 ERA in '10 and spending time in the minors before returning to the Pirates in late August, Morton pitched in the Dominican league for a month. That enabled him to build on his last few starts of the season, when he had begun to fix his control issues.

"If you can do well down there, it's good because it's no joke. There's guys down there that have had pretty long big-league careers," Morton said. "There's guys that are just getting into the big leagues, and there's guys that are in Double-A, Triple-A, and there's a really good mix of talent."

Walker missed time in Triple-A Indianapolis with a knee injury in '09, then made his big-league debut as a September call-up. He was encouraged to work on his approach at the plate in Venezuela after finishing the Triple-A season with a .264 average. When he returned to the majors in 2010, he hit .296 and secured a starting role.

"I think more than anything it helped me mentally," Walker said. "The amount of focus and the amount of energy you need to get through a major league game is very similar to winter ball."

One concern with winter ball is that focusing on baseball for so much of the offseason could lead to an emotional burnout — one reason it's more common for players who missed time during the season to play in the winter.

"For a guy like me who had such a bad season last year, it was a big thing for me to go down there and pitch pretty well," Morton said. "But if I had (pitched) 170, 180 innings and I go down there, I don't know how much benefit I'm going to get out of it because I'm going to go down there and burn out. The offseason, to me, is just as critical as anything you do in season. You need to take time off."

Hurdle said the need for Alvarez to work on his game this winter supersedes worries about him not having enough time off.

"Every player has to take ownership of his own career and decide what's best, and what's best is not always what's the most comfortable," Hurdle said. "(Alvarez) needs to get the games and the at-bats in to play the game. All of it — field, defense, run the bases, hit, the routine. He did miss six weeks of baseball."

— Annie Maroon

Rob Biertempfel's Column

Entering Thursday night's game, Pirates pitchers had thrown 10 shutouts, tied for fifth-most in the National League. Philly, as you might expect, leads the league with 17.

It's the first time the Pirates have reached double digits since 2006, when they also had 10 shutouts. Last season, they blanked opponents six times.

The latest shutout came somewhat as a surprise. Rookie left-hander Aaron Thompson and three relievers Wednesday subdued the Milwaukee Brewers, 2-0.

According to the stat wonks at Elias Sports Bureau, it was the third time in NL history in which a team with a starter making his big-league debut shut out an opponent that was at least 25 games over .500. Thompson joins the Dodgers' Karl Spooner (1954) and the Expos' Kirk Rueter (1993) in the elite group.

The Pirates won four of their first five games after the All-Star break. Three of those wins were shutouts. Over the next 34 games, however, the Pirates notched just two shutouts—a telling sign of the collapse that's dropped them from first to fourth in the NL Central.

Yet, shutouts are not the best way to judge a pitching staff.

"You gauge a pitching staff on quality strikes, getting ahead of the hitters and being able to put them away," pitching coach Ray Searage said. "Shutouts• They are a nice achievement. I don't want to shortchange that. They are a confidence-booster. But in the grand scheme of things, you'll get shutouts if you do your job."

Minor-league spotlight: Matt Hague

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said the team is considering about a dozen players for September call-ups, and while he wouldn't get into specifics, he said Matt Hague is among them.

"Matt Hague has definitely done enough to warrant consideration," Hurdle said. "He's had solid offensive campaigns at every level he's been at."

Hague, a first baseman, would need to be added to the 40-man roster. The just-turned 26-year-old is batting .311 with 34 doubles, three triples, 12 home runs, 70 RBI, an on-base percentage of .374 and a slugging percentage of .465. He had his best month in June, when he batted .402 and was named an International League All-Star in mid-July.

His batting average is seventh-best in the league. He's first in hits (153), fourth in doubles and 11th in RBI.

Hague was an Eastern League All-Star the year before, when he finished with the fourth-most RBI (86) in a single season in Double-A Altoona Curve history.

The Pirates drafted Hague out of Oklahoma State in the ninth round in 2008.

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