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Pittsburgh Pirates Player to Watch: Pedro Alvarez

Pittsburgh Pirates fans can finally quit wondering if Andrew McCutchen will be the next star who plays himself out of their price range. The team’s ownership stepped up this week and signed “Cutch” to a 6-year, $51.5 million contract extension.

Now, to find him some help.

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, third baseman Pedro Alvarez went from the next great slugger to hitting below the Mendoza Line. Thought of as a future cornerstone of the franchise just a year ago, Alvarez isn’t even guaranteed a starting job for 2012, and for good reason.

The team traded for former Milwaukee Brewer Casey McGehee to serve as insurance in case Alvarez doesn’t get his swing back. Alvarez, the 2nd overall pick of the 2008 MLB Draft, hit 16 home runs in 95 games two seasons ago. That seems like a distant memory.

Various strains plagued Alvarez last season, as he finished the year with a .191 average with just four homers in 74 games. He spent an additional 42 games in the minor leagues. Alvarez told Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he’s ready to put 2011 behind him.

“You never want to struggle, you never want to be injured,” Alvarez said. “It just so happened that they both happened simultaneously. You got to learn from it, strive and move on from there.”

Andrew McCutchen is a fantastic ballplayer, but he can’t lift Pittsburgh out of the gutter alone. He’s going to have his slumps, and when they come, the Pirates will need other players to step up. They need Alvarez to play more like the guy who was rated by Baseball America as the eighth-best prospect in the game two years ago than the player he deteriorated into last season.

http://youtu.be/6ITd9oOkzNE

The Pirates should take another step toward contention in 2012. Whether or not they can break .500 for the first time since 1992 depends on whether McCutchen’s supporting cast can take the next step.

Elsewhere on Rant: Analyzing the Andrew McCutchen Extension: Good Deal for Both Sides?