There’s little doubt about who the face and leader of the Pittsburgh Pirates is — that’s a role that’ll be reserved for superstar center fielder Andrew McCutchen for quite some time.
If the team wants to break through in the NL central, however, McCutchen can’t carry the load himself. The team’s going to need to hit with the best of them, and while emerging star Neil Walker is a solid player in his own right, the second baseman’s lack of pop makes him more ideal as a table-setter (I’d imagine that Russell Martin and his .224/317 AVG/OBP split won’t be in the No. 2 spot for long) than a finisher.
That key role of batting cleanup will deservedly go to third baseman Pedro Alvarez in 2013, who is arguably the most important piece in the Pirates infield going into the season.
Yes, the team will also need players like Starling Marte and Travis Snider to live up to their upside, but there’s little doubt that the offense will lack that all-important punch behind McCutchen if Alvarez can’t build on the 30-homer, 2.3 fWAR season in 2012.
The baseball world had always known about Alvarez’s prodigal power — he was ranked as the team’s best power hitting prospect for two straight seasons (2008 and 2009), and was a top-15 MLB prospect during that same span. The concern, as he’d shown upon his arrival in the bigs in 2012, was the strikeout rate, which currently sits at dangerously-high 30.7 percent over 1234 PA in his career.
Now, it’s not to say that he can’t find success in spite of it, but much like Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles, Alvarez has been traditionally a high-BABIP type hitter in the minors, and really needs that pillar to stay up to have any real success.
When it doesn’t — as was the case in 2011, when he hit just .191 over 262 PA with a .with a .272 BABIP (.310 career average) — all the power in the world can’t make Alvarez a successful player.
That said, much like Davis himself finally had a minor breakout with 33-homers in 2012, so too did Alvarez, staying above water enough in the batting average department (.244/.317 AVG/OBP) to make use of his power in the middle of the lineup.
He’ll have to do continue to progress there in 2013 by giving opposing pitchers something to think about when they pitch to McCutchen, and do his part to drive him in.
No, Alvarez’s .241/.263/.444 OPS over 54 at-bats in Spring Training doesn’t pop out; that said, he is striking out less (24.6 percent), and his team-leading seven extra base hits does bode well that there’s some work being done to try to be more consistent at the plate.
And just as Davis helped the Orioles end up a surprise entrant into the playoffs in 2012, Alvarez can have that same kind of impact for the Pirates in 2013.