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Pirates

The Starting Nine: Silver linings for Alvarez

| Monday, Feb. 23, 2015, 12:51 p.m.

“The Starting Nine” is a weekly feature comprising quick-hit thoughts and analysis on the Pirates and MLB. This feature will appear every Sunday.

1. Something to build on?

Hidden in Pedro Alvarez's disaster of a 2014 were two encouraging trends: he walked at a career-best rate, and he significantly reduced his strikeout total. Over the first four seasons of Alvarez's career — full and partial — he struck out in at least 30 percent of his plate appearances, among the worst rates in the majors. Last season, Alvarez reduced his strikeout rate to 25 percent. They are positive trends, but was there a tradeoff?

2. Changing the rules?

Last spring under new hitting coach Jeff Branson, the Pirates adopted a collective all-fields approach, one geared toward contact with two strikes. As a result, the Pirates enjoyed significant improvement in on-base percentage, finishing third in OBP (.330) in baseball.

Consider Alvarez's spray charts from the past two seasons — Alvarez better employed the whole field but at what cost? Last season, his home run per fly ball rate dropped from 26 percent to 16 percent. While the all-fields approach worked in aggregate for the team, maybe Alvarez should be exempt.

3. Platoon coming?

Earlier this offseason, Andrew McCutchen spoke about a desire to end infield platoon situations, ostensibly referring to Alvarez. But almost 2,300 plate appearances into his career, Alvarez has not solved left-handed pitching. Alvarez posted a .175 batting average against lefties last season and a .196 mark for his career. Alvarez requires a platoon partner. Is that Corey Hart?

4. Address change

Neil Walker described the offseason as an “emotional roller coaster” in speaking with the Tribune-Review last week. Walker likely was in part noting the Jung Ho Kang signing, and he also has been unable to reach a long-term deal with the club.

5. Future impact

While Kang could impact the long-term chances of Walker remaining in Pittsburgh, in the short term Kang is more of a threat to the left side of the infield. Most of the talk regarding Kang and competition has focused on shortstop, but many projections are forecasting regression from Josh Harrison at third base. ... But can Kang hit?

6. Believers

In speaking with Baseball America's Ben Badler, most evaluators familiar with Kang doubt he will be an above-average, everyday infielder. Still, there are believers. Fangraphs.com analyst Dan Farnsworth compared Kang's bat path to Miguel Cabrera and timing to Jose Bautista. Wrote Farnsworth: “I will gladly bet on Kang having a spectacular start to his career. … I could easily see him hitting .280 with 25 home runs.”

7. Costly effort

McCutchen touched on an important topic last week when he discussed how lower-income amateur athletes are being priced out of baseball. With the cost of private instructors, equipment, travel leagues and showcase tournaments, the opportunity to be seen by pro scouts is a costly endeavor.

8. More money?

Another critical cost issue? College baseball. The lack of baseball scholarships at the Division I level (11.7 per team) compel many athletes to choose other sports. College and pro baseball could benefit from a healthier partnership.

9. Growing the game

New commissioner Rob Manfred is open to many new ideas — from banning shifts to quickening pace of play — but for the game's long-term health it must become a more diverse sport, domestically, attracting more athletes and more future paying customers.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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