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Kovacevic: Boom or bust time for Alvarez

| Monday, March 19, 2012

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Pedro Alvarez is the pivoting point for the 2012 Pirates. The swing vote. The one who can determine almost singlehandedly whether the lineup goes potent or popgun.

We all know it.

He knows it.

"You can say that about anybody, if anybody hits .300 with X amount of RBIs," Alvarez was telling me over the weekend. "But, yeah, I'm aware of it. I'm aware that, if I produce, I can be a great asset to the team. I've been part of some teams where, when I've done well, the team's done well. That's obvious."

Good because that simple acknowledgement, the kind seldom heard in the pressure-free cocoon the Pirates created long ago for Alvarez, is a welcome start.

Let's stop dancing around it: It's time for Alvarez to deliver.

And if he doesn't, if he keeps flailing as he has the past few days, management should use that last option and send him to the minors.

This isn't a rookie anymore. Alvarez is 25, entering his third season, and all he has to show for 582 at-bats is a .230 average, 20 home runs, 83 RBIs and 199 strikeouts.

That last figure is absurd. A little extra statistical digging uncovers that he's whiffed in 34 percent of all at-bats, and he's swung through 31 percent of all pitches. Both ratios would embarrass an American League reliever. The swing-through rate is so strikingly awful that the only Pirates who fared worse the past two seasons were a handful of pitchers and two Rule 5 draft picks.

Worse, Alvarez hasn't done nearly as much whiffing as watching. He's looked at 55.8 of all pitches he's seen.

This spring has brought a maddening mix of both: He's batting .167 -- 4 for 24 -- with 10 strikeouts. On Friday, he struck out by watching three consecutive pitches zip by. On Saturday, he struck out in his first two at-bats by swinging through six consecutive pitches, then fanned a third time. And in the Pirates' 10-0 loss Sunday to the Minnesota Twins, he came off the bench and chopped at the first pitch of his only at-bat to bounce out.

It's been utterly cringeworthy.

Two of Alvarez's hits have been home runs, but that only amplifies the frustration of watching him. If he could hit a modest .280, as he did in the minors, history suggests he'd belt 20-plus home runs as an afterthought. Anytime he's connected regularly in his career, whether at Vanderbilt or in the minors or that sizzling September in his rookie year, he's done so with great authority.

All-or-nothing is the stuff of Brad Eldred, not a legitimate bopper.

I asked Alvarez about his priority at the plate this spring.

"I'm just trying to put some good swings on the ball, do whatever I have to do to square it up," he said. "Not necessarily the perfect swing or perfect path but really just get good wood to it."

I then asked about being more aggressive.

"You kind of flirt with that line between being aggressive and passive. But, yeah, a controlled aggression. Just be ready to hit. Don't worry about recognizing the pitch or that the swing is perfect. It's really just see ball, hit ball."

If only ...

For all the fuss here over Starling Marte -- who the Pirates rightly sent back to the minors yesterday for more seasoning -- it hasn't been that long since Alvarez was the Pirates' next big thing. He was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 draft, the consensus top power hitter available in a good while.

I know a lot of the faithful are giving up. The Pirates definitely aren't. They'll keep running him out there this spring, hoping not only that he steps up but also that they don't have to abandon their first base platoon of Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee.

I'm not giving up, either. Not yet.

I didn't like that Alvarez bucked management's plea to play winter ball this offseason, though I respect that he at least kept his word and reported for the spring in solid shape. But I don't care nearly as much about that as actual production.

I suspect we'd all forget Alvarez's opening act if he ever gets around to being the main attraction.

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